Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
August 19, 2019
Board committees are indispensable for carrying out the work of governance. As important as I believe they are, they can often be counterproductive, and some argue that Boards should not even have standing committees. I believe that boards can’t fully carry out their responsibilities without committees, but they need to be aware of common pitfalls. In this post, I explain why Board committees are important, what their proper role is and how to structure and use them properly.
So, why have committees? The main argument against committees is that they can draw board members into areas that are the responsibility of administration. Board committees focus on arenas which often reflect the school’s administrative structure: for instance, an education or academic committee that corresponds to the work of the Principal, an Advancement committee that corresponds to the work of the Development Director, and so forth. The natural temptation for those on such committees is to see their role as giving direction to the administration. When this happens, they interfere, even if unintentionally, with the responsibility and authority the Board has delegated to the school head. Administrators then have two masters, which will always lead to inefficiency and often serious operational breakdowns.
As real as this pitfall is, committees are still important. It’s unrealistic to expect Boards as a whole to take the time to understand every arena of the school’s strategy, performance and risks without dividing up oversight among its members. But assigning this oversight without overstepping its governance role requires a clear understanding of the committees’ role.
The proper role of Board Committees
The role of committees corresponds to the role of the Board overall, which I have discussed in my tutorial on the Board’s Role. Committee members wear three hats, labeled Policy, Sounding Board and Volunteer.
Wearing the Policy hat means advising the Board on governance level policies related to their arena; wearing the Sounding Board hat means providing advice to school personnel without giving direction; and wearing the Volunteer hat means assisting school personnel on some project, with no more authority than any other volunteer.
Committee members bring value with each hat they wear, but if it’s unclear which hat they’re wearing, this undermines the authority delegated to the administration. For instance, if they project Policy or direction when they are just being asked to wear the Sounding Board hat.
One way to make the committee’s proper role clearer to its members is having a Committee Charter, which can be reviewed by the committee every year, and shared with new members. The charter should state the Committee’s three-part role:
- To serve as the Board’s eyes and ears for a particular arena so it can recommend governance level policies to the Board
- To serve as a sounding board when administrators seek additional perspectives
- To assist the school administration on specific tasks as volunteers
The Committee Charter should also include expectations of members, similar to those for Board members, including supporting the mission, respecting the delegated authority of the administrators, confidentiality, etc.
The Charter can then spell out any specific responsibilities expected of the committee by the Board. For instance, the Finance Committee can be charged with receiving the Administration’s proposal for the budget and presenting its key assumptions to the rest of the Board for approval.
Each Committee Charter should be approved by the Board initially and whenever the committee seeks to revise it. (If you’d like a free copy of a sample Committee Charter, email JackPeterson@ManagingForMission.com.)
Each Board committee should include at least two Board members, but it is also a good practice to include additional members not on the Board. This will broaden the skill set and perspective of the committee and also serve as a means for identifying and preparing future Board members.
Some feel that employees should not serve on Board committees, but I’ve found that if roles are made clear, some employee participation strengthens the committee’s knowledge and builds trust in the Board’s processes by the faculty.
I’ve found it helpful to have the administrator whose portfolio most closely aligns with the committee serve as the committee’s administrative liaison, which means providing staff support to the chair and helping her craft agendas. But it’s better if liaisons are not voting members of the committee, which helps keep the Board committees and administrators in their swimming lanes.
The ideal size of a committee is 5-8. Factors to consider are: the number of Board members available to serve on committees, the number of committees the Board needs (see below) and the range of expertise and perspective required.
How many committees?
The committees a school needs must ultimately be determined by its own circumstances. But limiting the number of committees is one way of assuring that trustees are not dragged into the weeds.
Some committees are required by the by-laws (for example, an Executive Committee) some by statute (like an Audit Committee) and some by the internal needs of the Board (say, a Governance Committee). It is also common for Boards to have a Development Committee, a Finance Committee and a Mission Committee because these are so key to the Board’s fiduciary responsibilities.
Boards may be tempted to set up committees for every area important to the school’s success, such as academics, athletics, campus ministry, strategic planning, technology, facilities, personnel, student life, and so on. Not only will this tend to draw the Board into micromanagement, but providing Board presence on all committees will either spread trustees very thin, overburden them with multiple assignments, or necessitate a large and unwieldy Board.
The school should keep its committees as few and as high-level as it can, and if circumstances require a committee focused on a particular topic area, consider having an ad hoc committee with a defined life span, instead. And then consider whether this really needs to be a Board Committee or a committee set up by the administration to provide a report to the Board.
I hope this overview of Board committees is helpful. If you have more questions about the governance of faith based schools, please visit our website at ManagingForMission.com or contact me at JackPeterson@ManagingForMission.com. I pray that your school will receive fully the fruits your Board has to offer, especially through its committees. God bless.