What Makes a Good Board Committee for Your Organization?

Nicholas J Price
It's nearly impossible for boards to cover all agenda items within a reasonable amount of time and still give each item the attention it deserves. For this reason, committees do most of the board's work. Effective boards are starting to re-evaluate not only what their committees are doing, but how they are approaching their committee work.

Boards of directors have traditionally formed executive, nominating, development, audit and finance committees as typical standing committees. The board work of today is becoming increasingly complex, so the one-size-fits-all approach to board committees is not as effective as it once was. Today's boards are doing away with some of their standing committees. Instead, they are restructuring their committees to fit the needs of the organization and the board. Boards are using ad hoc committees for work that doesn't fit the new committee structure, as needed.

Boards Are Restructuring Committees

The 2011 AGB Survey of Higher Education Governance revealed some interesting facts about board committees. By and large, board presidents acknowledged that one of the top changes they wanted to make was altering their committees or agendas to improve the level of board engagement.

The report showed that about half of all organizations decided to restructure their committees within the last three years. About two-thirds of organizations stated that they had restructured their board work according to their institutional priorities. Boards also reported that they were more likely to add committees than to eliminate them.

Boards were more likely to add audit or trusteeship committees, and were just as likely to eliminate facilities or development committees ' or merge them with other committees.

Keys to Effective Committee Work

Committees tend to have some of the same problems that boards have. When committees don't work well, it's usually because they are not clear in their objectives and they base their work on poor or incomplete information. Recognizing these issues as common committee problems is the key to turning them into positive actions. The success of committees lies in how well they perform their duties.

All committees should have a written description of the committee's work, complete with a summary of their purpose, a description of the committee composition and the selection process, and a list of the committee's specific duties.

The committee chair is the most influential person in guiding the committee's work. Many boards prefer, if not require, that the committee chair is also a board member so that the committee's work coincides with the information the board needs. The chosen committee chair should have knowledge of the committee's content area and some experience relevant to it. Committee chairs also need leadership and problem-solving skills.

The chair should open every committee meeting by providing an overview of the agenda and reviewing the strategic focus for discussion. Additionally, the chair assigns responsibilities to committee members and makes timely follow-up. The committee chair should closely monitor the committee's findings and document major decisions, and use them to keep the board chair informed on their progress.

Effective committee chairs will spark productive energy within the group and encourage each committee member to provide insight and perspective to reach the committee's goals.

Attributes of Effective Committees

While committee chairs typically take the lead on effective committee work, each member of the committee must be carefully selected and must also have a willingness to uphold and follow through on the committee's stated objectives. Each member should believe in and respect democratic principles and be willing to work collaboratively as part of a team.

Using a clear, written statement of the committee's purpose, the committee sets priorities and establishes a step-by-step plan for meeting its benchmarks and goals. Members ask the right questions and carefully plan the work they need to accomplish. Committees do their best work when all members participate in deliberation and discussion. Each committee should record their activities in the minutes of the meeting, and prepare a timely report for the board.

Example of an Innovative and Effective Committee Structure

A prime example of an organization that took a fresh approach to committee work is the University of Charleston in West Virginia. President Edwin H. Welch, who was inspired by advancements in healthcare industry boards of directors, took the lead in analyzing the roles of the board's committees and restructured the university's committees to improve efficiency. The board's first step was getting rid of most of the university's traditional committees. Then, they formed the following new committees:
  • Quality committee ' responsible for oversight of quality of student experience
  • Vitality committee ' focuses on the overall health of the university, including admissions and finance
  • Outreach committee ' focuses on relationships with off-campus constituencies
  • Governance committee ' focuses on best practices and compliance
To further enhance committee work, the Charleston board developed a set of questions for committees to evaluate their work as they progress. The questions coincide with the university's long- and short-term goals.

The board also developed a core set of permanent questions that they can add to a committee's work if the school wants to emphasize an issue or if they need to address specific problems.

While this is a nontraditional approach to committee work, the university structured it according to their true needs and how addressing those needs will benefit the board.

Utilizing Ad Hoc Committees

Paring down the number of committees shouldn't mean that committee work should fall short of the board's needs. When the board needs ancillary work on issues that don't fall neatly into existing committees, ad hoc committees can easily fill the gap. Ad hoc committees are typically short-term committees that have the ability to give focused time and attention to a specific issue.

Committee Work Is Evolving to Meet Current Needs

As a few corporations begin to think outside the box in their approach to committee work, they serve as shining examples to other corporations on how to analyze the unique needs of their own organizations and restructure their committees so that their boards receive the information they need. Most of the board's work will still be done by committees, it's just that the committee names and functions will change to better suit the needs of the board. The duties and responsibilities of the committee chair and members won't change either, but the new structure will clarify their roles in ways that should make their jobs easier.

Committee restructuring calls for major changes among boards of directors. Many boards are finding it helpful to plan an annual offsite board retreat so they can develop new committee structures without day-to-day distractions.

There are bound to be a few bumps in the road for corporations that choose to transition away from the traditional committee structure. Corporations that are willing to be flexible and to continually evaluate their needs will likely find that their committees are better than good ' they're great.
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Nicholas J. Price
Nicholas J. Price is a former Manager at Diligent. He has worked extensively in the governance space, particularly on the key governance technologies that can support leadership with the visibility, data and operating capabilities for more effective decision-making.