The thoughts outlined in this article resulted from a benchmarking study undertaken in the Spring of 2010. Benchmarking partners included both professional and trade associations, small and large, Canadian and international. The results presented some curious discoveries about committee management.
How Many is Too Many Committees?
Across the board, associations tend to have too many committees based on the resources available to staff them. There are several reasons why this occurs, but the largest culprit seems to be the Board’s lack of discipline when creating committees. Quite often, an issue that is discussed without resolve at the Board table will result in the creation of a task force or committee. This approach makes sense in theory, but Boards have to be careful the issue is relevant to the association’s strategic priorities before commissioning staff and volunteers to spend time addressing it.
There are several reasons why an issue might arise repeatedly at the Board table. Perhaps it is contentious or complicated and requires further study - in such cases a task force might be an appropriate option. But all too often it is because the issue falls outside of the organization’s current priorities and the Board can’t decide what to do with it. Rather than ask the question: “Is this worth our attention, or does it fall outside of our mandate,” Board’s will create a task force to move the meeting along.
I like to call these illegitimate committees, “bastards” in the original sense of the word. They are born out of wedlock with the “core” mandate of the organization, yet they need to be taken care of and dealt with as though they are part of the family. These “problem” committees can be extremely time-consuming for all involved and can add up quickly if the Board continues the trend.
So how many is too many committees? At what point do you know your association has reached its maximum capacity? And which committees are legitimate?
There is no hard and fast rule about the number of committees an association should establish because it depends largely on resources, both staff and volunteer. But as a matter of principle, committees tend to be more effective if they are few and directly in line with the association’s strategic goals. By limiting the number of standing committees, associations will ensure that those in existence are well-resourced and effective.
Traditional vs Policy Governance Models
Associations employing a policy governance model generally have a more effective committee structure. In this approach to governance, standing committees only exist if they are tied to the association’s key policy and operational goals which are determined by the organization’s strategic priorities. For example, if monitoring government regulations and establishing industry sustainability practices are the association’s top issues, then each might have a standing committee reporting directly to the Board.
Under the policy governance model, there are usually between three and six standing committees (regardless of the size of the association), reporting directly to the Board. All other committees or task forces are advisory in nature and are created by the Chief Staff Officer (CSO), as required, to support internal programming and operational issues. This type of approach empowers the CSO to solicit input from the membership, take their recommendations under advisement and ultimately make the final decision without involving the Board in the details. Establishing the committee structure in this way encourages the Board to focus on high-level policy issues, while allowing staff to deal with the details of running the association’s programs and events. It also enables the Board to objectively and fairly hold the CSO accountable for program and operational outcomes.
This approach ensures that only a manageable number of standing committees exist and that their purpose is clearly tied to association’s key strategic objectives.
Once an association has established an appropriate number of committees based on available resources, it will need to focus on the management of these committees. This includes ensuring that every committee has a documented Terms of Reference, appropriately skilled volunteers, and adequate staff resources. Most associations are good at establishing the goals of the committee and assigning a staff resource, but finding qualified volunteers remains a universal challenge.
A best practice in this area is a targeted approach to finding volunteers. Quite often associations approach volunteerism as a one way street: volunteers come to you and you place them where appropriate. But what happens if you don’t have enough volunteers with the right skill-set to make a particular committee successful? Is there anything wrong with seeking out qualified members within the association and asking them to assume this role?
This approach may appear time-consuming at the outset, but it becomes far less daunting if the association has taken care to create an appropriate number of committees. In the experience of association’s who use this practice effectively, individuals are often flattered and happy to help if they are personally asked to contribute based on their skill-set. Another effective practice is to encourage Board members to seek out qualified individuals from within their own companies or organizations.
Finding the right volunteers for a committee is the key to its success. A committee becomes far more attractive if it is accomplishing things.
Who Should Chair a Committee?
Many associations tend to assign Board members to chair the association’s committees because they can act as a liaison back to the Board. This practice can be effective because it does encourage Board engagement, but it also increases the responsibility of these Board members and can catapult the amount of volunteer time required to an unsustainable level. Also, there is no guarantee that your Board members will be equipped (skill-set wise) to chair every association committee. This common practice often results in an over-committed volunteer, and one that does not necessarily have the skills, or interest in the subject matter, to chair and manage the committee effectively.
In the event that this situation is all-too-familiar, best practices do exist which could help your organization. Many associations are moving away from the notion that a Board member has to chair every committee and are instead appointing members from within the association membership who have the relevant and necessary skill-sets to manage a specific committee. The chair is also allowed to assume a non-voting seat at the Board table where he/she will report on the happenings of the committee and have the chance to observe the rest of the Board meeting. Not only does this approach take the burden off Board members, allowing them to focus solely on strategy, it also provides the committee chair with a chance to gain some perspective of the overall activities of the association.
Many associations are finding that this practice creates an effective reporting structure and addresses the issue of over-worked Board members.
Do New Volunteers Need Training?
Strong volunteer engagement is a luxury for many associations. There are volunteers who sign on for life and give beyond their years, juxtaposed by the ever-absent volunteer, and the rest who fall somewhere in the middle. But how do associations maintain strong volunteer engagement right from the start? Are there some effective practices around early engagement?
High performing associations are trending in the direction of new volunteer training to kick-start their involvement. It does not have to be an all-consuming exercise, but a quick call or in-person meeting between the chair of the committee and a new volunteer can go a long way. First, it makes volunteers feel like their contribution is appreciated and allows them a chance to ask questions and gain a better understanding of the committee’s goals.
Having instituted this practice recently on a committee, I can tell you that the result is extremely positive. Volunteers gain a better understanding of their commitment, the overall goals and where they fit into the picture – not to mention that they feel appreciated by the phone call.
A more engaged group of volunteers results in a more effective committee, and a more productive association.
In conclusion, committee (or volunteer) management is a tricky business - but one that cannot be avoided in association management. Having engaged, productive volunteers on your committees will contribute to the accomplishments of your association in an exponential way. Therefore, if your association committees need some house-cleaning, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself some hard questions about how many committees you have, why they exist, and how you can better engage your volunteers.