When we work with nonprofits on their governance structure, we have found that the Executive Committee is often a point of contention. Term limits, board manuals, and the size of a board are the first heated discussions. But, a conversation about the pros and cons of having this committee seems to trigger the strongest opinions.
What are the Pros?
- The Executive Director and Staff have a strong, well-informed group of volunteers to go to for advice, help, etc.
- This committee can supervise and perform annual reviews for the Executive Director as well as hiring and handling transitions.
- A specific topic is easier to discuss in a smaller committee.
- Board members can look to grow into roles in this leadership group.
- Often there is an expectation or path within the Committee to move through one more role, leading to the Board Chair/President position.
- If you are having trouble with board attendance, you have a core group of people who will show up at the Committee meetings to help make decisions.
- They can make decisions on some smaller items that might not need the whole board’s time or consensus.
- It creates a group (instead of an individual) who can be responsible for problems within the board.
Seems great, doesn’t it? Let’s look at the cons to having an Executive Committee:
- It is a vicious circle, or a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you prefer. A nonprofit organization feels they need an Executive Committee to “get things done.” Executive Committees cause the board then to feel like they are only a rubber stamp. The board, then, is less invested in coming to meetings and getting involved. And that makes it impossible to get anything done with the board. Which is why you need the Executive Committee.
- It creates an insider vs. outsider mindset in a board that needs to work together.
- Executive Committee members get frustrated at board meetings if the board wants to dive into the same topics they have already discussed.
- It’s easy to rely on the Executive Committee for items that should be processed within the full board. Let’s face it, a smaller, more homogeneous group is easier to manage for staff– especially as the staff is more likely to know where the Executive Committee stands on certain topics.
- A strong Executive Committee can hide a weak board and/or weak Executive Director.
- While it empowers the small group, it disempowers the full board if major decisions are made prior to their meetings.
So should you have an Executive Committee?
In general, we are not fans of this method of leadership.
But there are cases of nonprofits with which we work that have made a strong case for why they need an Executive Committee. For instance, one nonprofit found themselves in crisis –especially over the past few years – and really appreciated the nimbleness of a smaller group. Another was working to strengthen its board and governance process. But they needed a high functioning group during the time the new governance structure was developed and implemented.. A third found they had confidential issues where – for privacy and protection – the Executive Committee was the best way to keep the circle of knowledge small.
In other words, it is up to you. There are ways to address and prevent potential complications. However, most Executive Committees are too busy doing the work of the board to focus on that.
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