How Leaders Can Improve Committees

Volunteer groups can be good at letting newer members pick up some of the load. But they also need to think bigger—and that requires permission and encouragement from leaders.

Is your committee structure due for an overhaul? As a general rule, associations seem to understand that they do demand regular tweaking. According to “Mutually Beneficial Volunteerism,” a report published last year by the ASAE Foundation, 73 percent of organizations have reviewed their committee structures in the past five years, and 79 percent have made changes to them.

That’s good news, considering that association committees tend to field a lot of criticism: There are too many of them, the terms are too long, there are too many make-work tasks, or too little guidance from the top about what their jobs should be.

As I wrote about last week in an article about National Volunteer Week, some association committees are getting better about recruiting members to serve in an ad-hoc fashion for particular tasks. That’s helpful for members new to the organization who might not be ready for larger commitments.

Your job is the outcome, not always all the work.

But Peggy M. Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, president and managing partner at Mariner Management & Marketing, says associations still have work to do to encourage the members of the committees themselves to think more broadly about their jobs beyond the scope-of-work list they receive when they first join.

“A committee oftentimes says, ‘I have been tasked with the following charge and all this work,’” she says. “And you say, ‘OK, so my committee has to do it and that’s it.’ You just stay right there and this is the work of the committee. Those of us around the table have to do this and you live or die by the willingness and the time that these people have.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, but the prompt for committees to be more imaginative with their roles ought to come from the staff or board leadership. “It starts with the staff and to certain a degree the board saying to committees, ‘Your job is the outcome, not always all the work.’”

One way to become outcome-focused, Hoffman suggests, is to make clear that the scope of work involves not just the tasks related to what the committee has to do now, but what those tasks will look like in the future. What is membership in your association going to look like in 10 years? Professional development? Meetings? Pushing committees to take that on as their charge can make their work more meaningful. “You have to tell the committee that,” she says. “You can’t assume that the committee is going to understand it. That’s the reason why the committee reports are nothing but a litany of ‘this is what we got done.’ You have to at some point say, ‘Your job is to say what’s the thing that’s not getting done or what’s the thing just on the horizon.”

If that sounds chastising, Hoffman’s point reflects a real concern among leaders about committees being a good fit for the job. According to “Mutually Beneficial Volunteering,” among the top weaknesses in committees, according to executives, are orientation and training. Committees won’t be doing the big-picture thinking they ought to if they don’t have a clear sense that that’s how they ought to be spending at least some of their time.

There are scorched-earth methods of addressing this issue if you want to pursue them. The Oncology Nursing Society, for instance, has done away with nearly all committees, preferring instead to gather robust information about volunteers and then recruit them for short-term tasks—an “adhocracy” that its leadership says serves it well. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with the committee structure per se. It just demands clear communication from leadership about what a committee’s jobs are. If one of those jobs is “Have a candid conversation about the reason for your committee’s existence,” all the better.

Hoffman cites an example of one association that established a talent council with a wide mandate but little guidance. The group took it upon itself to assign some tasks to subgroups and to decide others didn’t work—and spoke up to the board about why. “We had to break out of our model of thinking we had to do it all,” she said. “We went to the board and said, ‘Listen, we know you set us up to do this, but in order for us to do this charge, if we hold it to our chest, we’re not going to get done the very important strategy work behind the council. We’re only going to get done with the in-the-weeds stuff.”

How do you clarify roles within your committees, or restructure committees to make them more effective? Share your experiences in the comments.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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