A frequent question of association executives is, "Can you tell us how to get our committees to work?" It is followed by descriptions of declines in volunteering, do-nothing committees and committees that act without authority.

"We had some unproductive committees that did not advance our agenda and counterproductive ones generating ideas outside our mission. We have eliminated most standing committees, preferring focused task forces instead," explains Chris Isaacson, executive vice president at the Alabama Forestry Association.

When did committees go out of fashion?


Governing bodies have relied on committees for centuries. The results can be powerful.

On June 11, 1776, Congress appointed a committee of five to write the Declaration of Independence. They operated for four weeks or until the Declaration was published on July 5. It could be said they were an expeditious task force.

In another example, an architectural drawing of the Texas state capitol circa 1839-1856 (see below) designed the building to incorporate five committee rooms adjacent to the House and Senate chambers.

Always, the intent of committees has been to make the best use of talented persons willing to give their time to advance issues and solve problems — supplementing the work of the board of directors and staff.

Waste of time?

I've known committees that produced significant results. They have written books, created certification programs and passed legislation. They've been the source of inspiration and created future leaders.

Adversely, I've listened to committees that start with the question, "What do you think we should do this year?" The group thought they'd brainstorm to come up with new projects for staff.

Problems arise when the chairperson provides no agenda, dominates conversations, advances a personal agenda or the meeting lacks a quorum. Or when members arrive only for lunch, offer minimal input and frequently check watches for a quick departure.

One way to lose a dues-paying member is to ask him or her to participate on a committee that wastes time. Members have described attending meetings where the chair arrived late, there were no resources and no decisions were made.

Equally bad are calls for volunteers that lead to dead ends. Members agree to sign up but receive no more information, which may imply, "We don't want you."

Talent, direction and leadership

Talent, direction and leadership are elements of thriving committees.

Talent Volunteers bring talent to the committee table. Their role is not to simply listen in hopes of gaining insider information.

For example, a government affairs committee has 40 persons who attend to gain firsthand information. The composition leaves the committee short of persons with the skills to monitor legislation, draft laws and lead coalitions.

  • Call for volunteers: Maintain a roster of persons willing to volunteer. The clearer the purpose statement for each committee, the more likely the right persons will volunteer. Describe the amount of time required. Explain how volunteer work and leadership can be advantageous.
  • Assignments: Get the right volunteers on the right committees. Identify their interests and competencies, then recommend a good fit. Most importantly, if they volunteer, respond to their offer. It is belittling to call for volunteers then ignore them.
  • New models: Volunteers have limited time. Committees are transforming into microtasks and quick-action teams. Volunteers prefer a clearly defined timeline as opposed to a year-long standing committee. The trend is fewer standing committees and a reliance of task forces that disband upon completion of their assignment.
  • Mergers: Some organizations appoint committees because, "We've always had that committee." Be sure there is a need for every committee and they align with the goals of the strategic plan. It may be politically difficult, but some committees can be eliminated or merged.
  • Communication: Keep the members informed. Though a committee may meet infrequently, it needs a flow of information. Invest in the technology to allow online collaboration. Keep everyone informed of progress.
  • Outsource: Why appoint a committee when outsourcing the task can be more efficient? For instance, a bylaws committee can take six months to do what an attorney could do in days.

Direction Committees fall under the authority of the board and direction of the strategic plan. They need clear assignments (expected outcomes) and should have a statement of purpose.

It is common that committees will "wander," sometimes expanding their workload without necessity or authority. For instance a governance review committee is charged with making recommendations about two paragraphs in the bylaws. At the first meeting, they expanded the charge to review the entire bylaws and policy manual, to examine 10 years of history, to analyze the interface of leadership and staff, and a study of similar organizations.

  • Purpose statement: Every committee should have a purpose statement; a sentence or paragraph to narrow the focus. Without a statement, a membership committee might expand its work to member benefits, recruitment and retention, campaigns and member awards.
  • Current year charges: "When it is in writing, it is more likely to be achieved." The chief elected officer or the board should precisely define assignments for the committee. Narrow the focus to only one to three charges for the year.
  • Strategic plan: Nearly every endeavor should support an aspect of the strategic plan. Committees should recognize they are advancing the organization's strategic plan. Failure to perform will endanger the success of the plan.
  • Vision: A committee should have a vision to define what success looks like. For example, "By our final meeting we will have reviewed all the certification test questions and presented a report to the board." Vision should influence nearly every communication, discussion, report and outcome. Without a vision momentum wanes, members lose interest, and the group begins holding meetings for the sake of holding meetings.

Leadership Committees require leadership. The appointees are responsible for planning and chairing an efficient meeting and be the visionary for engineering how results will be achieved. Committees are often the forum for developing future leaders.

  • Chair and vice chair: Appoint both a chair and vice chair (or co-chairs). When the chair cannot attend, loses interest or is transferred, the vice chair can assume the role.
  • Liaisons: Committees need a connection to the board. The role of a board liaison is to champion the committee's positions and work to the board of directors. The role of a staff liaison is serve as a resource.
  • Orientation: Include committees in the annual orientation process. Just as board members benefit from an improved understanding of the organization, so do committee chairs.
  • Organizational chart: Depict the lines of communication between board, staff and committees with an organization chart.
  • Technology: I smile when I hear a board from a relatively small state say, "We can't get our committees together because of driving distance." The opposite are global organizations with committees that manage across multiple time zones and languages to produce results. Integrate technology into committee meetings so members can participate without the drive time and have access to information 24/7.
  • Succession: The committee leadership should maintain records so the successive leaders will understand the work of the prior year and be able to pick up seamlessly where the committee ended.

Association checklist

  • Incoming chief elected officer considers committees 90 days before taking office.
  • Only essential committees are appointed.
  • Consider alternatives to standing committees, i.e. task forces, quick-action teams, strike forces and volunteer microtasks.
  • Each committee aligns with goals in the strategic plan.
  • Every committee has a (1) purpose statement and (2) current year charges.
  • Appoint leaders who are visionary and good meeting managers.
  • Committee leaders are included in orientation.
  • Performance measures are set.
  • Liaisons connect committees to board and staff.
  • Committees are aware they do not speak for or act on behalf of the board.
  • Achievements of committees will be recognized, celebrated.
  • The transition to successive committees (next year) should be seamless.

The suggestion for this article came from a meeting of the International Association of Optometric Executives where I was asked, "Do you have pixie dust for committees?"