Nonprofits – How Do You Establish Effective Board Committees?

Following are ways that many nonprofit boards have established effective board committees using my governance model as described in the third edition of Policy vs. Paper Clips:

  1. In the planning effort, focus board personnel and financial resources only on those topics that are germane to the organization at a particular time. For example, financial planning, long-range planning or short-range planning. However, the board needs to be open to generative planning if new opportunities present themselves or are developed via board leadership.
  2. Reduce the number of board standing committees to no more than six, even less if possible.  With the use of small board task forces to review new policies and challenges, it can be reduced to these three–governance, planning, and assessment.
  3. Use task forces or subcommittees committees to review a range of board-level topics, as needed, such as personnel policies, OSHA requirements, and long-term space needs. Where needed staff personnel may also participate in the work of these board groups.
  4. Generally, the CEO should attend all major committee meetings. He/S may or may not serve on subcommittees or task forces, depending on the information and guidance needed by the group.
  5. Staff input is critical. Professional staffs make major contributions to board policy decisions. It needs to be remembered that staff in most NFP organizations are more closely related to the board than they are in FP situations. They are usually only a few organizational levels below the board.
  6. The CEO needs to foster an atmosphere in which staff members feel free to express professional opinions to board members and administrative staff when involved in appropriate forums such as strategic planning. This atmosphere benefits the organization and isn’t just social activity.
  7. When confronted with a particularly difficult issue, an excellent means of communication is the board/staff workshop using an outside moderator.  The professional interaction between board and staff should enhance the quality of decision-making. There are also secondary benefits, as a workshop enhances professional communications between board and staff and engages board members in meaningful hands-on projects. In addition, the board can assess the capabilities of promotable staff.

Too many boards have been content to analyze proposals endlessly (i.e., engage in analysis paralysis), Others to avoid conflict, have tended to rubber-stamp proposals made by the Executive Committee, overly aggressive board members or the CEO.

Neither of these types of boards truly participates in the challenging act of establishing policy and direction for their nonprofits.

The times are currently changing. Boards are being held much more personally accountable for their actions by the community (such as a call for impact data) and by legal statute. Under the legal statute of due care, if a volunteer board chair assumes the CEO title or becomes president/CEO, he or she may face increased exposure to liability for not meeting his or her duties of being very current on financials, compliance regulations, organizational limitations, etc.


Dr. Eugene Fram
Dr. Eugene Fram
Eugene H. Fram, Ed.D., is an expert in nonprofit governance, a business consultant and an award-winning emeritus professor of the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). He is also the author of six books and more than 125 published articles and has been widely quoted by national media on topics ranging from business to high-performance nonprofits. His blog platforms on nonprofit governance have in excess of 3500 followers. He is a past recipient of RIT's highest award for outstanding teaching and one of a very select group awarded the Presidential Medallion, given to those making exceptionally significant contributions to the university. In 2012, a former student anonymously contributed $3 million to endow an RIT Chair in Critical Thinking in his name, an honor Dr. Fram describes as "a professor's dream come true!" Over his distinguished career, he has served on 12 nonprofit boards overseeing diverse community, national and professional organizations, and also has served on five for-profit boards. His particular passion is helping nonprofit boards perform at high levels as more is expected of these boards today than most people realize. He is the author of Going For Impact – The Nonprofit Director's Essential Guidebook: What to Know, Do and Not Do, and POLICY vs. PAPER CLIPS - How Using the Corporate Model Makes a Nonprofit Board More Efficient & Effective.

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