Do you need this effing committee? Mastering “committee wrangling” for your organization – and your sanity

Committee Wrangling, coined by Carolyn Simmons at our most recent Fundraiser’s Forum, is the process of working with a group of volunteers for a defined purpose. Working with committees can be greatly rewarding, or it can be your worst nightmare. Here are ten questions you can ask yourself about your committee or potential committee that will help make it a more productive process!

  1. Do you need this effing committee? Step one is to understand when you need a committee and when you need a task force – and when it might be better to disband it altogether. In general, I think of a committee as a standing working group of the board. You don’t need very many of these; in fact, BoardSource recommends you have only two – Finance and Governance. The rest of your board’s working groups are probably task forces: short-term work groups with a defined time frame and deliverable, i.e. bylaws review, audit, capital campaign, or real estate purchase.
  2. What is the committee’s purpose? How does this committee relate to the organization’s mission, vision or current strategic plan? If the committee does its work well, what will be the desired outcome or deliverable? Examples include a completed special event meeting all the measurable goals; recommendation regarding a purchase, contractor, or hire; completion of a policy manual or bylaws.
  3. Is this a governance committee of a support committee? Governance Committees are part of the board structure and typically are designed to make recommendations to the board or carry out board work. Examples include governance or finance. Support Committee are groups of volunteers who support the work of the staff by helping to get things done. Examples include: marketing or program development.
  4. Does the committee have a job description? What is required of the committee and each of its members? This should be detailed in a job description so that the people on the committee know what is expected of the group and each of the individuals. Is there a start and end to the committee’s work? Build the timeframe into the job description so that people know the length of the commitment they are being asked to make.
  5. Does the committee have a plan? Your committee should have a detailed plan with action steps, timeline, and responsibilities. The purpose of the plan is to ensure the completion of the goals and deliverables. If it’s a board committee, this plan should be presented to, and accepted by, the board of directors.
  6. Who’s in charge? If it’s a governance committee, the chair should be a board member who is capable of facilitating a meeting, setting an agenda in conjunction with the lead staff member, and inspiring committee members to get the job done. If it’s a support committee, it may be led by a staff member or designated volunteer who is not necessarily a board member. Again, the chair needs to be someone who can run a good meeting and inspire others to action.
  7. What are the parameters of our authority and accountability? Outline authority and accountability for decision making right from the start so there are no misunderstandings moving forward. What authority does this group have? Can we make decisions or only recommendations? Who has the final say – the committee chair? The staff member? The executive director? The full board? To whom are we accountable for the completion of our work?
  8. Who is on your committee? Recruit participants for their expertise and knowledge. Don’t fill your committees and task forces with people who know nothing about the subject area. If it’s a marketing committee, find people with expertise in marketing and business promotion. If it’s a capital campaign committee, find people who are willing and able to connect with donors and ask them for gifts. Most importantly, keep the negative Nancies and freeloaders off the team! You need people who are invested in the work and enthusiastic about working with others to achieve real results.
  9. What is the budget? The committee can’t function if it doesn’t understand its work relative to the organization or project budget. Do they have a certain amount they can spend on their work? Do they need to keep budgetary constraints in mind when making their recommendations? Financial data and budgets need to be clear from the start of the committee’s work.
  10. When and where will we meet? Be flexible about the location and scheduling of meetings in order to accommodate committee members; however, schedule all the meetings for the year and then stick to the schedule. It helps keep everyone on task and limits absences.


Happy Wrangling!