Association of Chairs

John Williams: Board committees - from camels to racehorses?

The vice chair of the Association of Chairs says it's time to recognise the importance of board committees

John Williams
John Williams

There’s an old saying that no one ever put up a statue to a committee. So it’s perhaps no wonder that board committees can get overlooked or, worse, maligned as a waste of time. But effective committees can be an invisible, hard-working spine of governance.

It’s surely time to recognise their role and value in good governance.

It’s one challenge chairs face in leading their boards well; and just one topic where there is relatively little specific guidance and advice available from the chair’s perspective.

The Chair’s Challenge Series

To fill these gaps, the Association of Chairs is launching the Chair’s Challenge Series, a new programme of briefings and events to explore these issues, signposting to existing advice and drawing on the experience of long-standing chairs and others to offer ideas and suggestions for how you can manage the challenge.

Our first publication, Making Board Committees Work, tackles this topic.

Larger charities will probably have an established roster: finance, audit, investment, nominations, perhaps service delivery or fundraising. In fact, from research done by the consultants Mike Hudson and Jacinta Ashworth, there are more than 180 types of board committees, ranging from the usual suspects to committees that address specific policy areas, regions or local neighbourhoods.

So perhaps it is time to look again at your own structures and their value.

The rewards are clear: at a time of huge pressure on charities and charity boards, board committees offer chairs an invaluable opportunity to share the work better, create more capacity, speed up projects and allow boards to focus on their core strategic work. Committees can be an opportunity to bring in new talent, perhaps as a pipeline to board appointments. They can bring new energy and innovative thinking, and help board members and executives to work more closely together.

The risks are equally clear: have committees outrun their usefulness? Do they tick boxes rather than drive progress? They can distract staff from more productive work, consuming too much resource while producing little; develop agendas of their own; or even be used as an alternative power base to rival the board. The work of committees can be unglamorous and it can be difficult to keep people motivated.

The key: Purpose, People and Performance

Making Board Committees Work offers an answer under three headings: Purpose, People and Performance. But what lies behind the thinking is that, put simply, chairs should oversee board committees with the same expectations, disciplines and good process as they do the main charity board. The board chair’s role is one of coordination, oversight and talent management.

Purpose demands directly: what is the committee there to do? Can you, the chair, clearly articulate the role? Are members clear about the remit? Does it need updating? How does it link to delivering the charity’s mission? The clearer the task, the more effective the committee will be. It does not need to be a permanent committee; a finite task-and-finish group can sometimes deal better with specific projects.

People asks the even more basic question: have we got the right members of the committee with the right mix of skills and commitment? Above all, finding the right people to lead each committee is critical. As with the main board, committee chairs will set the tone and lay down the markers for success. Diversity of perspective still matters – the guide makes a good case for bringing in new people and non-specialists on specialist committees.

Performance is the third element of the mix: is the committee fulfilling its purpose? Does it deliver? Are the people motivated? Are the staff well used? Each committee should have established report-back and annual-review processes. The relationship with the main board is central to each committee’s effectiveness: what powers are delegated? What is the committee being asked to do? How does it balance relieving pressure on the main board with ensuring proper feedback and accountability?

While ensuring effective committees is a continuing process, there is a bigger structural challenge to ensure that the charity’s committee structure is the right one: are there new tasks that need the sort of close scrutiny a committee can bring? Does it need to be a standing/permanent committee or is an ad hoc task-and-deliver group more appropriate?

The more you think about board committees, the more there is to think about.

Making Board Committees Work might just help you to ensure your committees produce racehorses rather than camels.

John Williams is vice chair of the Association of Chairs

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