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How Many Committees Should Your Nonprofit Board Have?

Three simple rules for optimizing committees

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Not unlike the question of how many members a nonprofit's governing board should have, we get a lot of questions about committees.  Committees can help a nonprofit and its board do necessary and valuable work.  Committees can also bog down a board and its members, creating unnecessary responsibilities and straining scarce resources.

First rule - minimize the number of standing committees in the by-laws.  A nonprofit's governance needs change over time, and its capacity to meet those needs change over time.  Boards need to have the flexibility to name committees as needed and allow them to sunset when they are not needed.  Mandated standing committees with no work to do take a toll on a nonprofit's governance.

Second rule - no executive committees.  See our article on the tragedy of executive committees.  We like the governance committee structure to address the operation of the board itself (policies & procedures, nominating, CEO evaluation/succession, etc.).  

Third rule - let the committees do their work and make recommendations to the full board.  Don't allow the full board to redo a committee's work; there's a difference between due diligence (asking key questions) and duplication of effort.

Finally, how many committees should a nonprofit board have?  There is no set number because there are many types and flavors of nonprofit organizations.  The general rule is: as few committees as are necessary to aid the full board in doing its work. 

REMEMBER:  Committees are typically advisory only.  The make recommendations, not decisions.  The exception is when the full board specifically delegates a specific decision to a committee.

The committee structure should be reviewed at least annually by the governance committee and the full board to assure it still meets the nonprofit's needs.  Having few standing committees in the by-laws allows the board to be agile and nimble in setting the parameters of its committees based on needs at any given time.

For more on nonprofit board governance and policy, please visit Sumption & Wyland's "Articles" pages, part of our ridiculously large and growing "Resources" section.
The Wyland Report is produced by Michael Wyland of Sumption & Wyland. Michael has more than thirty-five years of experience in nonprofit practice, public policy, and journalism.  In his practice serving nonprofit organizations, he has been a consultant, executive, and board member. He currently serves as an editorial advisory board member for The Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ), for which he has written hundreds of published articles and features.
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