Ask Alyson: Executive Committees – what should they decide?

Posted on August 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Process · Tagged: ,

Dear Alyson –

I’m a new board chair and I have a question about my Executive Committee. Generally, this committee meets a week prior to each board meeting.  We discuss all of the issues and pretty much decide what we think needs to be done for the big questions that will come up at the board meeting.  Then, at the board meeting, someone on the Executive Committee presents the Executive Committees rationale and thoughts for the full board to approve.  Do you think this is a good way of conducting business?


Ralph (alias, for privacy purposes)


Dear Ralph –

I recommend that nonprofit board Executive Committees only be used to make decisions during real emergencies (when the entire board can not convene to handle a time-sensitive situation.)  While I’m not sure this is true in your situation, when I’ve seen Executive Committees making up-front decisions it tends to cause the board members who are not on the Executive Committee to become a bit complacent and passive.  Board members who know that the Executive Committee has already discussed, digested, and decided on each issue that comes before the board will not take the time to understand the pro’s and con’s of each decision.  In cases I’ve witnessed, these non-Executive Committee board members become disenfranchised, emotionally withdrawn, and they offer their time and energy less frequently.   Because maintaining board enthusiasm for and involvement in the organization is such a critical part of an organization’s success, I recommend that the Executive Committee not meet between board meetings but meet only in emergency situations.

As the new board chair, perhaps you could eliminate those Executive Committee meetingsAsk your board committees to prepare and present their brief, one-page recommendations to the entire board during board meetings for the entire board to discuss and approve.



5 Common Problems of Nonprofit Boards and How to Solve Them

Posted on July 2, 2009 by  
Filed under Board Governance · Tagged: , ,

As a consultant, I work with nonprofit boards that lead organizations from many sectors and of all shapes and sizes.  Despite their varying nature, these organizations face some problems that are strikingly similar.  Sometimes board members can see the symptoms but can’t articulate the root causes and they don’t realize that the solution may be an easy one. 

Step back from your board for a moment and read through the list of problems, below.  Are you familiar with the complaints described in the problem?   Can you imagine stepping through the solution? 

PROBLEM #1 – Mission Scope Creep – Over time, we’ve started to do too much for too many people.  We aren’t sure any more what our priorities are and where we should focus our time.  Things fall through the cracks and the staff is overloaded.

RECOMMENDATION – Conversations need to take place with key board and staff personnel. Chances are that you are spread too thinly – and lots of projects are not being done well or in a timely manner. Make a list of what you do.  Make sure you have the resources to manage these projects well.  Drop some projects/programs if necessary.


PROBLEM #2 – Staff and Board are out of synch. The board is working on things, the staff is working on other things, but one hand doesn’t really know what the other is doing.  Sometimes things just seem out of control.


RECOMMENDATION – Stop and assess what the staff is doing and what each of the board committees is doing.  Assign staff members to appropriate board committees.  Design an Executive Director Board Report that highlights the measurable results from the organization’s key programs and projects. 


PROBLEM #3Executive Committee does it all.  It’s just easier with fewer people.  The Executive Committee can have a meeting before the board meeting and discuss most issues and make most decisions.  Some people are doing all of the work, others don’t seem to be interested or involved.


RECOMMENDATION – Slowly phase out the Executive Committee over time and ask the board committees to come to the board meetings with crisp, direct recommendations to the entire board.  Create more involvement for all board members.


PROBLEM #4 – No clear sense of where the organization is going.  It seems like the organization is just treading water.  We have no annual objectives for the staff and no actions for the board.  We just come to board meetings and hear the same thing each month.


RECOMMENDATION – As a board, sit down with your executive staff and decide the three most critical changes that need to take place in the next year.  Decide how the board can support that activity and how it can oversee the progress and the results you want to achieve.


PROBLEM #5 – No oversight of key areas is provided by the board.  It seems that the staff is doing fine without us.  We’re not really sure what we SHOULD be doing, and we don’t want to interrupt their work when they’re so busy.


RECOMMENDATION – Think about the organization’s 3-5 key programs or projects. Decide what facts, figures, and trends you need to provide oversight and support for the essence of your organization.  At the same time, work more closely with the staff to start discussing the future.  Describe where you want to be in 5 or 10 years and determine how you can make that future a reality.