At one of my Board Basics workshops recently, a board member asked how to increase the engagement of her fellow board members. I asked her to say more about what their disengagement looks like. She described poor attendance and lack of participation of those who do attend. There can be a lot of reasons for this, but I asked: Do you have an active board executive committee? Aha! It did not take long to discover the role the executive committee was playing in board member disengagement. This begs the question: should we nix executive committees?
I am reminded of an article written in The Nonprofit Quarterly (Destroy Your Executive Committee) in which Simone P. Joyaux argues that there is no need or use for board executive committees. I don’t agree, but let’s review her arguments against the common reasons nonprofit leaders have for thinking they need one.
- An executive committee is needed for action in lieu of the board in an emergency. Really? How does it make sense to disregard the full board in an organizational emergency? Communication technology has really eliminated the validity of this argument says Simone and I agree.
- The CEO wants a sounding board or a kind of “think tank” to consult with. Joyaux argues that “nothing is confidential to a subset of the board” and, if the CEO wants a small group to talk to, he/she should go to the appropriate board committee. On this point, I disagree. When I was a CEO, I found it invaluable to have a subset of the board to vet ideas with. Yes, one could do this without a formal board committee, but it works well. A portion of a board meeting could be set aside for this sounding-board function but, in my experience, time is usually at a premium.
- The executive committee sets the board agenda. I agree with Joyaux that this is more appropriately the job of the board chair and the CEO together.
- The executive committee leads the CEO performance evaluation. You don’t need an executive committee for this. An ad hoc committee convened for this purpose will do, Joyaux proposes. I agree but, the executive committee can fulfill this function without starting from scratch every year. There is something to be said for continuity and the value of board’s leaders owning this process. It is absolutely critical that the full board be engaged and involved in the final result, but a smaller group should lead it. I could go either way on this one.
- The executive committee discusses issues referred to it by other committees. This is redundant and over-discussing seldom adds value. I agree.
For the above functions that I agree with, an executive committee does not need to meet regularly. In fact, meetings should be infrequent. The big risk with having an executive committee is that it can become a surrogate board – the place where “the action is” and it won’t take long for board members to feel by-passed, dismissed etc. leading to disengagement. Overall, remember that form follows function. Board committees should have a specific purpose consistent with governance responsibilities and your strategic priorities. Be thoughtful about what you create!
Please share your opinions about this topic and your experiences. Your colleagues (and I!) will benefit!
Our Executive Committe hasn’t met as a separate unit in over 5 years. we find the Boardis a more cohesive team when we operate as one. our monthly meetings alternate between traditional action meetings and informal working meetings. In the working meeting months, we act in the capacity of the functional subcommittee that needs focus. for ad hoc needs, we form temporary subcommittees that report back to the Board when their task is done. Our only standing subcommittee is the Finance Committee. It is very effective for us.
Thanks for sharing this Diana! This is very interesting and validates a lot of what I mentioned and what others are thinking these days. Sounds like a sound structure that is working well for you!
An interesting discussion. Previously, I worked on a Board that adopted Carver Governance Policy. This became cumbersome and unworkable when so much time was dedicated to policy compliance reporting. I subsequently joined another Board that is using a “modified Carver Policy Governance”. i.e. the policies are there and followed but the Board does more than just check for compliance. This Board has a standing Governance Committee that is responsible for policy compliance and for working with the Board to identify and develop new initiatives for the Board. I am finding that this Committee is very effective and beneficial to the Board. It checks frequently to ensure that is is not becoming an Executive Committee and it is not making decisions for the Board. rather it is providing advice and support to the Board. The previous Board mentioned above has now implemented a Governance Committee with great success. I would appreciate you thoughts on this form of Committee support to a Board.
Thanks for your thoughtful response Lorne! First, form follows function. There are few, if any, real rules about how boards should be structured to get their work done. I think Governance Committees are wonderful for almost any board. As you describe, the Governance Committee is generally focused on all of the items that have to do with the care and development of the board itself. I think all boards can benefit from this focused attention.
You have said that you found your executive committee to be effective as a sounding board. My experience is that I find other executive directors to be better sounding boards for me. I find that executive committees seem to become more exclusive and disempowering of the other board members regardless of their intention not to do so. I think an executive committee could be useful for a national board, with many members, who don’t meet very often. For local non-profits with community membership, it is a barrier to real board involvement. Furthermore, I adhere to an ideal of smaller rather than larger boards. I realize that I am going against the trend, but I am looking at a modified board structure that would be more workable for the organization and for individual board members. With smaller boards an executive committee would be unnecessary.
I agree that colleagues are a great sounding board. Your comments are on target. It is my experience that so much depends on the level of trust and quality of the relationship between the executive and the board. The good news is that there are no rules about this and executives and board members can configure what works best for them. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and insights!