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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!