At some point in the development of most Non-Profit organizations, the question of whether they need an Executive Committee arises. Usually, this is the result of one of the following situations:
1) Board members have seen Executive Committees on other boards, so they form one because “that’s the way it’s done.”
2) The founding of dominant members of the board gets frustrated with having the whole board in on every discussion and form the Executive Committee so they can make decisions faster – and “get things done.”
3) The Board finds themselves lacking direction and order and wants their work to be better coordinated.
What is Typical?
In many organizations, the Executive Committee composed of the Board Officers often joined by the chairs of most or all board committees.
Typically, the defined role of the Executive Committee is to:
1) Establish the agendas for Board meetings, in coordination with the Executive Director/CEO
2) Evaluate the Exec Director
3) Identify and groom future leaders
4) Make decisions for the Board if it is not practical to pull the entire board together. Specific authority is granted through the by-laws of the organization.
Where Can It Go Wrong? What is the Downside of Having an Executive Committee?
One of the most common problems arises when real issues are discussed and decisions made at the Executive Committee meetings. Instead of framing the topics for discussion by the whole Board (or delegating to the appropriate committee), the Executive Committee presents their conclusions to the Board and asks for approval (or even worse doesn’t advise the Board). After a few rounds of this, the other Board members feel left out and realize they are not able to contribute insight or leadership.
How Does the Governance Committee Work with the Executive Committee?
Many organizations have seen the Nominating Committee evolve into a year-round role as the Governance Committee. Previously, a nominating group would meet a few times in preparation for recruiting new Board members or electing Board officers. As the Governance Committee, they may take the role of planning Board Retreats, charting Board meeting topics well in advance, guiding new Board member orientation, and creating on-going opportunities for Board members to get better acquainted with each other and the organization. An active Governance Committee can take over many of the roles shouldered by the traditional Executive Committee, making it easier for that group to retain a real leadership role.
The Executive Committee as THE Decision Making Body
Some organizations intentionally use the Executive Committee as a Board within a Board. If the full Board has more than 20-25 members, it often becomes impractical to get everyone together, and sufficiently informed, to make all board decisions. This structure can work if Bylaws are appropriate, and members tell of the role they will be asked to play – either as a decision-maker or more likely as a fundraiser or friend-raiser. You see this structure most often in arts and culture organizations where board members link to the organization through its performances or work, not just their attendance at board meetings.
In spite of many people forecasting the eventual demise of the Executive Committee, recent surveys show that virtually every useful Board claims to use one.
Bryan Order is President of Charitable Advisors, based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Following a 12 year career with a Fortune 50 corporation and a six-year stint as a Program Director for a large nonprofit, Bryan has been a full-time consultant with nonprofits for almost ten years.