Striking the Right Balance with Nonprofit Executive Committees
By Kathy Cohen and Nanette R. Fridman
Kathy Cohen, left, and Nanette Fridman
Nonprofit boards often rely on a subset of its members who provide guidance on numerous issues for the full board, and whether or not that group is formally called an executive committee, good practices can help ensure organizational success.
Over the last decade, nonprofit boards have been slimming down, with most today ranging from 13 to 23 members. Some people believe executive committees should continue to be the powerhouses of the board, while others think that they are completely outdated. The truth is likely in the middle. The following will help.
Where Executive Committees Can be an Asset
Depth of Understanding: The executive committee often has a better understanding than the board at large of how the organization works. In high functioning executive committees and boards, this better understanding does not occur because the board is being shut out of important conversations. Rather, this happens naturally when a small group spends more time together with the executive, and can take a deeper dive into an issue before it is shared with the entire board.
Beta Testers: Executive committees can be a fantastic beta testing ground for presenting a new fundraising campaign or explaining a complicated financial picture, or any number of other issues. The executive committee can help determine what might be missing from a presentation, pose questions trustees are likely to ask, and uncover any points of confusion before such stumbling blocks derail constructive conversation at the board level.
Agenda Setters: It often is helpful to board chairs to have a group to review the agenda with and to be eyes and ears at both the committee level and in the community-at-large. This assists in making sure that key issues are brought to the surface and that many perspectives are heard.
Work that Doesn't Have a Home: The executive committee is a small and nimble group that is poised to take action around a particular issue when it doesnt fall squarely within another committees or task forces domain. These issues can range from evaluating and selecting the three best offers to share with the board regarding a bank loan refinance to evaluating the engagement of a board consultant.
Emergent and Sensitive Issues: The executive committee is on-call and available to work with the executive director or board leaders on urgent or time-sensitive issues as well as issues that are sensitive in nature and require more discretion. This can be a life saver for organizations when such issues occur in-between regular board meetings.
Training Ground: For those in line for succession either formally or informally, the executive committee can be a source of mentorship and coaching. Having a small group setting can provide training ground and allow board members to develop their leadership skills.
Where Executive Committees Can Get in Trouble
Pre-deciding and Impeding Board Engagement: A problem can arise when the executive committee serves as a separate, higher level board that pre-discusses and pre-determines every outcome. This can lead to a disengaged board with trustees who feel their skills are not well utilized and who feel they merely rubber stamp the work that the executive committee has already done.
The In-Crowd: Executive committees have great potential to become a close and closed group and can appear cliquey to the rest of the board. This can create a divisive feeling among trustees, a significant lack of trust, and separate coalitions within the board.
The Only Crowd: If the executive director is new or turns to the executive committee frequently, this can lead to the executive committee feeling burdened and overwhelmed. It also means the executive director isnt getting to know and leverage the work, wisdom and webs of the other board members to the fullest extent.
Executive Committee Best Practices
Assess the Need: Ask yourself: Could our board do all of its work, whether a crisis emerges or not, with the number of trustees we have and the number of board and committee meetings we have each year? If the answer is yes, you don't need a separate executive committee. If the answer is no, all signs point either toward a complete structural overhaul or the need for an executive committee.
Acknowledge the Committee: If your executive director is consistently turning to a small group, you have an executive committee whether you call it that or not. Your organization can address this in two constructive ways: either name a designated executive committee or ensure that the executive director includes all trustees regularly for advice and feedback.
Right Size: Executive committees need to have the right number of members in proportion to the entire board. If a board has 11 or fewer people, there is no need for an official executive committee. If a board has 23 people, it doesnt work if 12 of them serve on the executive committee.
Define the Scope: It is essential to define the scope of the executive committee and the work it will do. Do this in partnership with the entire board so that trustees can weigh in on what work feels vitally important to all trustees, and what work should be allocated to the executive committee.
Kathy Cohen, PhD, a clinical psychologist and experienced nonprofit board president, helps nonprofit executives and boards become more focused, efficient, collaborative, and impactful. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, founder and principal of Fridman Strategies, consults on strategic planning, financial resource development, governance and leadership coaching, and author of On Board: What Current and Aspiring Board Members Must Know About Nonprofits & Board Service. Email her at email@example.com.