Board members’ capacity tapped?

I’ve been thinking about the concept of capacity and how it applies to boards.  An executive director with his board chair contacted me recently. Their question was: what board committees are we required to have? What board committees should we have?

Sound familiar? In my experience, this comes up a lot, particularly for nonprofits growing.

Let’s consider Anne’s experience. Anne (not her real name) leads a nonprofit providing space and support for local artists to showcase their work in her moderately-sized community. After serving that community for 8 years, they were growing.

There were 9 board members and no board committees. They had just completed a planning process, setting strategic goals to diversify their financial base, expand their artistic scope, and more.

With the strategic goals in place, Anne created the first-year operational plan. Her board chair, Joe, led the board in identifying its role in achieving the goals. The board set annual objectives for itself but when it came to the “how” of getting that work done they weren’t sure how to proceed.

The good news for Anne and Joe was that the board had already addressed a key principle about board structure: form follows function. You don’t want to set up board committees or task forces for the sake of having them. Know the purpose you are trying to achieve and then, consider board committees/work groups as a way to gather the right people to do that work.

Establishing goals for the board and, following that, a structure – i.e., committees – to lead achievement of those goals can glaringly reveal whether the board has the capacity to use that structure. I’ve seen boards get to this point with task forces named but no one serving on them. And—not for a lack of willingness to do the work. It was because personal capacity was already tapped.

When you’re thinking about board structure remember that it goes hand-in-hand with capacity. It’s really a capacity issue for the board. A few key points to wrap up:

  • Every board member should be serving on at least one of these committees/groups. But be realistic and honest with each other about your individual capacity and don’t over-commit. That doesn’t serve anyone.
  • Not all committee members must be board members. Use committees as an opportunity to grow your board’s capacity.

Thinking of capacity and your board is not just about having enough of the right people around the boardroom table. It’s also about how you deploy those people and their capacity to best leverage the board for your nonprofit.

What do you think? What have your experiences been?


Also check out my podcast Episode 037 for more discussion on this topic: