What's In a Committee Charter?

In a previous post I referred to board-approved committee charters as a "widely accepted best practice." This practice is so widely accepted that it should be ubiquitous... but it's not. There are many reasons why a nonprofit or association may not have charters for its committees. Some don't have them because the board has successfully relied on tradition and unofficial records to oversee committees. In other cases, standing committees are already
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established in detail within bylaws or policy so that charters seem redundant. And sometimes the responsibility for forming committees may be left to the discretion of the President or CEO, making board-approved charters seem unnecessary.

Regardless of the organizational or administrative factors making charters just seem like extra paperwork, they are still a very important component of any functional committee structure. Because, just as boards depend on their own governing documents - such as bylaws and operating policies - to do their work, committees need their own governing documents to guide their work and meet assigned goals. A written charter is essentially the committee's governing document. The board's formal approval of that document certifies its authority and oversight over the committee's work. 

So, when a board acknowledges that current and future committees under its purview need to be chartered, the question that logically follows is what should that charter include? Fortunately, there is a lot of literature and a number online resources (yes, many offered by BoardSource and ASAE) that provide templates and guidelines for just this thing. But here also are some basic elements to get started:
  • Committee Name 
  • Purpose / Mission Statement
  • Responsibilities and/or Goals
  • Composition (including members, officers, terms and method of appointment)
  • Individual Member Responsibilities
  • Timeline (primarily for special or ad hoc committees)
For committees in especially complex governance systems, other elements might include:
  • Delegated Authority
  • Reporting Responsibilities
  • Time Commitment of Members
  • Parliamentary Rules
  • Review & Amendments
    Like other governing documents, committee charters should be reviewed periodically (by both committee members and the board) to ensure they remain accurate and relevant. Revisions should be tracked and dated so versioning does not get out of control. It's also a good idea to make charters available publicly on the website, or at least widely available to members and key stakeholders. Doing so promotes transparency and eases current and prospective committee members' access to their charge. 

    While I would consider most of the components listed above as pretty standard, the truth is charters can functionally be almost whatever a board wants to best meet the unique needs of the organization. This might mean memorializing committees in board resolutions rather than individual documents. Or it might mean creating internal- and external-facing documents -- one that governs and one that communicates the committee's purpose to an outside audience.

    The important thing is to make sure that the board's will for what the committee is, who is on it and how it supports the organization is clearly documented and communicated. Writing out the committee's charge helps its members understand what is expected from them and gives other stakeholders clarity regarding its role and function. After all, the threat of scope creep and (heaven forbid) undermining the board's authority is best averted when the committee is actively engaged in fulfilling its charge! 

    So, how does your nonprofit board approach chartering its committees? Has it ever been difficult for the board to institute charters as a new practice?


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    Rachel Miller-Bleich, MA, CAE is a nonprofit governance consultant and owner of MillerBleich Consulting, LLC. To learn more, visit www.millerbleichconsulting.com.


    © 2020 Rachel Miller-Bleich. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

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