When Board Committees Are 'Sacred Cows'

I once encountered an organization facing some challenges with an advisory council made up mostly of former board members and high donors. While members' interest and engagement in the group was high, its overall purpose and productivity appeared to be flagging. It seemed that the energy and staff time being put into the committee's operations were exceeding outputs, which were also quite redundant with other work. This was raising questions about whether or not the committee should keep going.  

When I thought about the issue, it occurred to me that I held a position that arguably flew in the face of best practices - particularly BoardSource's guidelines on advisory councils. Based on what I knew of the organization, I suggested that perhaps the value of fostering a sense of belonging may be reason enough for the committee to exist - even if it had little to do. I felt that because this group was a bit of a "sacred cow," trying to innovate and repurpose it might need to take precedence over trying to sunset it.  

I think this example illustrates how best practices can often be at odds with the way organizations establish and maintain their committees. In fact, I often wonder how much our well-established platonic ideals of nonprofit board committee structures really help organizations as they try to navigate their own unique circumstances. 

Photo: Dudarev Mikhail / Adobe Stock
Clinging to entrenched committee structures is a notable way that nonprofit boards can get stuck in a "we've always done it this way" mentality. While best practice exemplars can certainly provide a useful roadmap for getting out of it, I also believe organizations should carefully consider the underlying reasons for their sacred cows before they start a metaphorical barbecue. In order to do this, it's important to put the concept of best practices into perspective and analyze the specific needs and constraints driving the board's decision-making. 

Best practice literature primarily helps to benchmark against what's most common among similar organizations, identifying what kinds of committees exist and what they generally do. It also provides important guidance on legalities surrounding a committee's role in the organization's governance. For example, the practice of approving written charters is widely considered necessary for boards to properly delegate duties and responsibilities to committees. Not doing so might enable a committee to act outside its intended scope or (heaven forbid) undermine the board's authority. Clearly, we need some established standards to keep committees relevant, functional and above board.  

That said, most committees' raison d'etre and assigned duties will depend on more specific factors than can reasonably be accounted for in the literature, such as:
  • Size of board, staff and budget
  • Strength of board/staff partnership
  • Politics and culture of the board and extended volunteer leadership
  • Degree to which members/stakeholders are engaged in the nonprofit
  • Internal resources for addressing certain issues
  • Gaps in experience or subject matter expertise on the board
  • History and tradition embedded in existing practices

These are just a few elements boards should seek to understand when considering significant changes in their committee structure, even if only to generate awareness around the likely radial impact of potential solutions. Ultimately, when there is a clear understanding of how and why a committee is established (and esteemed), it becomes easier to make sense of its' value and identify workable mechanisms for change. Such changes may not perfectly align with best practices, but that doesn't necessarily mean they won't be the best approach for the organization. 

What challenges have you faced when navigating your nonprofit's committee structure? What role did best practices play when you have considered changes to existing committees? How did the organization's unique circumstances influence decisions and outcomes?


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.


Popular Posts