Board Smarts: Support Structure

Great committees make great boards. Here’s how to build them the right way.

No one needs a dysfunctional board—or anything dysfunctional, for that matter. So, what are the best ways to achieve the high-functioning committees that are essential to support high-functioning boards?

It takes dedication and effort. It also means ensuring that the staff liaisons that work with committees are trained in volunteer management. A well-trained staff liaison will help the organization utilize volunteer resources as effectively as possible, says Erin Volland, CAE, senior consultant at Association Management Center.

Making sure the right committees and task forces are in place will advance the board’s work.

Staff liaisons of course need to be trained in basics like how to write agendas and minutes. But training should go beyond managing those usual operational tasks to handling more subtle issues like “scope creep,” Volland says. Staff need to recognize when committees are doing more than the board has asked and help the chair guide the group back and facilitate the work that needs to get done.

Structure is everything. Some associations have dozens of committees, meaning staff liaisons spend all their time building agendas, writing minutes, and carrying out other administrative tasks that don’t actually support the work of the association, she says. Making sure the right committees and task forces are in place will advance the board’s work instead of adding unnecessary effort—or working completely against the board’s wishes.

“The more the board can delegate decisions to high-functioning committees, the more the board can focus on strategy and generative discussions that move the association forward,” Volland says.

The composition of task forces and committees is also critical, meaning selection for these groups is just as important as board selection, she says. A lot of boards are at the point where they’re just defining what leadership skills they need, so organizations first need to identify what competencies they’re looking for in committee and task force volunteers. More boards are placing a premium on collaboration skills, technology savvy, and specific personal attributes, she says.

In the current environment, many associations and boards are looking within and assessing their structures to see if they’re actually working, Volland says. Before, an “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mindset prevailed, but associations are now recognizing that they don’t have the right balance of competencies on their boards and committees, or volunteer leaders don’t accurately reflect membership.

“As hard as this time is, if it wasn’t broken [before], 2020 broke it—or pointed out that it was broken,” she says.

That reckoning is giving associations an opportunity to address issues they might not have touched before because they were politically inconvenient, Volland says. Many leaders are now realizing that “this is the change we have to make to be successful—and to meet member needs.”

(Marc Tran/Getty Images)

Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

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