Sustainable Agriculture Institute
Ad Hoc Committees
High-Performing Committees: What Makes Them Work?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the structure of board committees. Such committees should be organized to best fit the distinct needs of their board and institution.
Each committee should have a specific agenda and a clear statement of responsibilities that is reviewed regularly. As boards seek to align committee structures with strategic priorities, they are also considering whether their work could benefit from more cross-pollination across committees through joint meetings and other approaches.
Boards should conduct periodic retreats to review how they are organized to conduct their work. They should ask questions like: “How can we become highly effective? Where do we add value?”
As governing boards have become more sophisticated and polished in their oversight of Institutions, they have also become more intentional in the way they organize themselves to meet their missions. Some boards have evolved entirely new structures. Even within the parameters of fairly traditional constructs, many boards have made important tweaks.
But when it comes to committee structures, there is no one-size-fits-all approach: Boards organize themselves distinctly to best fit their needs and those of the Institution. And that may be precisely the key to success.
Committees are where boards do the bulk of their work. Consequently, a board should design and implement an infrastructure that serves its needs and those of the institution it represents as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Committees and Subcommittees
Committees and subcommittees make up an important part of the Institute’s Governance Structure, and it is at these committee meetings that formal decisions about the Institute are made.
Members of these committees come from within the Institute, the wider higher education sector, and the student body. Committees review current policies and practices of the Institute and consider proposals for modification and change. Most of our committees and subcommittees feature student members who enjoy full membership status and voting rights.
The Basics of Board Committee Structure
From standing and ad hoc committees to task forces and advisory councils, a board accomplishes its work through a variety of smaller groups. Associations need to regularly evaluate their existing committee structure and be ready to adjust it based on the Institution’s changing governance needs.
Just as every board is unique, every board’s committee structure is unique too. Most organizations have the same committee structure from year to year with little thought given as to what the committees do or whether they are still relevant to the Institution. As a result, the committees have vague objectives, committee meetings are often endless discussions with no work achieved, and the members of the committees become bored or frustrated.
At the other end of the spectrum is the zero-based committee structure where the organization reviews its planned work for the board each year and then establishes only those committees that it will need. Similar to a zero-based budget, this frees the organization from doing things the same way each year. Of course, this only works if the organization truly looks at what it needs in terms of board work for the year and only forms those committees that are necessary.
Institutions should avoid the temptation to form too many committees. To be effective (and to avoid burnout), board members should generally not serve on more than two committees.
There are generally two types of board committees:
- Standing committees (also called working committees) are those committees that an organization uses on a continual basis. They can be set forth in the organization’s bylaws or in its board operations and policy manual, or they may be established by custom.
- Ad hoc committees are formed for a limited period of time to address a specific need. When the work of the ad hoc committee is completed, the committee is dissolved. An ad hoc committee may exist for less than a year or for a year or more depending on the extent of the work assigned to it.
The bulk of the board’s work should be done through its standing committees. Some boards have board development plans where members rotate through the different committees to gain a broad understanding of the organization. Others allow members to stay with the same committee each year to develop a deeper knowledge of the subject area to provide greater service to the organization. A balance of the two strategies allows board members to gain experience with different committees and to develop some expertise with the work of one or two committees.
Ad hoc committees are often formed to amend the bylaws, recruit a new CEO, develop a strategic plan, relocate the organization, form a new subsidiary, launch a new division, or work with other organizations or coalitions. An ad hoc committee could also be formed to study and find creative solutions to a particular challenge an organization is facing, such as falling membership levels or poor communications.
A board does not always need to add new committees to get its work done, nor must committee members always be members of the board. A task force can be formed if there is an objective that can be achieved in a relatively short period of time. Special events planning or analyzing a proposed merger are examples of work that can be handled by task forces. Advisory councils assist boards in carrying out their work by providing expertise and advice in selected areas.
Advisory councils do not have any governance responsibilities and are a good way to include former board members, potential board members, subject matter experts, and others in the work of the board without placing them on the board. Not every volunteer makes a good board member. Sometimes a task force or advisory council is a better use of the volunteer’s talent, experience, and time.
The larger the board, the more committees it may want to have to ensure that all board members can serve on a committee in a meaningful way. Institutions should avoid the temptation to form too many committees. To be effective (and to avoid burnout), board members should generally not serve on more than two committees. Limiting service to one committee gives board members the opportunity to focus on an area and develop expertise that can further the work of the organization.
The size of the board will determine how many committees are sustainable. While it is possible for a committee of two to be effective, generally committees should be structured so that there are sufficient members to do its work. When committees have too many members, the result is usually that only a handful of people do the work of the committee and the rest of the committee’s members are not engaged.
Ad hoc committees and task forces are a good way to involve non-board members in the board’s work. This also gives the volunteer and staff-leadership the opportunity to evaluate rank-and-file members for their leadership potential and interest them in further volunteer opportunities. Keep in mind, however, that the authorization to act on behalf of the board may only be delegated to committees comprised solely of board members.
Committees should perform regular self-assessments to determine if they are working effectively, achieving their established goals, and providing value to the organization. This can be done at the end of each committee meeting or on an annual or more frequent basis.
Committee chairs and vice-chairs should provide actual leadership to the committee. These are not empty titles but require real work in terms of translating the board’s goals for the committee into meeting agendas and work plans. They should work with staff as appropriate to prepare background materials for committee meetings, schedule committee meetings, prepare minutes and reports, and otherwise keep the committee functioning. Committee chairs have the difficult task of following up with absent committee members or addressing behaviors that are disruptive to the committee’s work.
Committee chairs also report on the work of their commitment to the Executive Committee and the full board.
If the committee structure has not been revisited in a few years, the board should consider looking at the current committee structure and what the committees actually do. If there are overlapping responsibilities or no work being done, then it is time to realign the committee structure. Committees with no work can be abolished, and committees with overlapping work can be merged.
Committees should not take on a life of their own, nor should they overshadow the board itself.