That is the question.
It tends to be conventional wisdom that:
1) an executive committee is an essential facet of nonprofit board governance, and
2) that it’s easier to make decisions with a small group than it is with the larger board.
There is also a universal theme that we hear all the time from clients, which is: “We can’t get board members to do anything,” or “The lack of engagement on our board is our biggest issue.”
Let’s break down the conventional wisdom.
- An executive committee is an essential facet of nonprofit board governance.
Nope. You think it is but it’s really a myth based on bad habits accrued over time.
When I tell clients that a fully functioning, regularly meeting, decision making executive committee is bad governance, I get quizzical looks. They say to me, “But every board I’ve ever served on has an executive committee.” I want to say what my parents said to me as a teenager, “If your friends all jump off a bridge, would you?”
The authority given to a nonprofit board is given to the collective — the entire board. The board must uphold legal standards including duty of care, loyalty, and obedience, and the full board must adhere to its roles and responsibilities of nonprofit governance. Abdicating decision making to a few select board members — to those who serve on an executive committee — is a relegation of authority and duty.
It could be that the fully functioning, regularly meeting, decision making executive committee you have is single handedly driving the board engagement issues you struggle with because you’ve created a board within a board. Assess the power dynamic at play, and you will begin to see why the rest of the board is checked out.
- It’s easier to make decisions with a small group than it is with the larger board.
This is an assumption that must be challenged.
First, what types of decisions are being made in executive committee? If your answers are:
- “They determine the board meeting agendas.” That is best done by the board chair and chief executive working together.
- “They handle issues that arise in between board meetings that are time sensitive” Often, these are operational decisions best left to the chief executive to make on their own, and not matters of strategy and governance. If the decisions are strategic in nature, you’ve just usurped the full board’s role.
- “They can quickly gather when there is an urgent or emergency matter” If there is something that serious, you must pull the full board together because that is their duty and where the authority lies.
- “They decide on the chief executive’s performance review” This may be an appropriate function, but you don’t need a standing executive committee to do an annual review; it can be an ad hoc committee.
Second, does your structure get in the way?
- “The board is too big to have meaningful conversations.” Then maybe you need to rethink your board’s size and composition. If it’s larger than 20 members, then maybe that is your issue rather than relegating authority to a select few.
- “There is too much time between board meetings.” Then maybe a quarterly meeting structure no longer serves your organization well. A bi-monthly board meeting cadence is typically what we recommend, with committees (not executive) meeting in the alternating months.
- “Board meetings would be too long if we had everyone debating everything.” Consider changing your agenda format to eliminate report outs and create time for meaningful and strategic dialogue. No one wants to sit through a meeting of monologues about the past. Encouraging debate creates better decisions and is a good use of time that fosters board engagement.
We recognize how pervasive the conventional wisdom around executive committees is, as have others like Simone Joyaux. We once had a client with a small board of nine that had four on its executive committee — half the board — and they wondered why the other half never showed up.
Pay attention to the power dynamic that is created by the “board within a board” and challenge the assumptions behind the tired practice of strong executive committees that regularly make all the decisions and then simply inform the rest of the board.
Your board members — all of them — should be an asset to the organization. Fully utilize the talents, skills, and wisdom that sits around the table. Your board will be more engaged, and your mission will be better fulfilled.
Article by: Kerri Laubenthal Mollard, Founder & CEO