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2 Reasons Why You Should Dump Your Nonprofit Board Executive Committee

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I second the motion to eliminate all executive committees of nonprofit boards. It is only fitting that I state that in the form of a motion you would commonly hear at any nonprofit board meeting. In fact, if you are on the board of a nonprofit utilizing the concept of an executive committee, seconding motions (already conceived, discussed, tuned and delivered by the executive committee) may be your ONLY reason to attend the meeting as regular board member!

We have all been there when board members race to make the motion to approve the minutes or worse yet race to second it. Those actions are then followed by the race to make or second the single motion or two suggested by the executive committee. In most cases, nobody on the executive committee would actually make the motion because that might make it seem like others had been excluded. I hate to state the obvious, but the rest of the board has been excluded!

Conference RoomYes, those are powerful words, but there are two major reasons are why I make such a statement. They are:

A) I have been part of a several boards where an executive committee was used, which did stifle any true creativity, in-depth discussion and (heaven forbid) any disagreement. It is not rewarding to be a non-executive committee board member unless you are there just to build your resume or some other fluffy reason besides the core reason why all board members should be anxious to be at every meeting and to be heard: “commitment to the cause.”

B) I recently read my good friend Simone Joyaux’s tirade on this key subject. Her post should be required reading for any incoming board chairman, as well as incoming board member!

Simone’s Responses to the Top 5 Reasons for Executive Committees

Here are Simone’s responses to five top reasons people give for creating and keeping executive committees:

1. The executive committee meets in case of an emergency, in lieu of the board, because it’s hard to get the full board together.

Excuse me? It’s an emergency, something vital to the organization, and you disregard the full board and bring together the executive committee. Ask the rest of your board members how they feel, giving this emergency power to a subset of the board. And in this day and age with conference call capability and email? Please. A true emergency belongs to the board.

2. The CEO needs a small group to talk with about very confidential items; a kind of think tank or kitchen table cabinet.

Stop right now! Nothing is confidential to a subset of the board. If any committee of the board knows something, it’s the right and responsibility of the full board to know it. Governance is the legal and moral authority of the board. The board cannot delegate that to any single individual or entity.

3. The executive committee includes the officers and committee chairs and sets board meeting agendas.

Seems to me that’s a waste of your board members valuable time. Imagine you are the treasurer. You chair the finance committee and go to those meetings. You serve on the executive committee and go to those meetings. And you go to board meetings. That’s a lot of meetings and time.

I recommend that the CEO and chair together develop the agenda of board meetings. The CEO should know what’s happening in every committee.

4. The executive committee does the performance appraisal of the CEO.

You don’t need an executive committee for this. You need an ad hoc task force that includes the right people. Put together a task force that lasts for the few months of the appraisal process. Then terminate the task force.

5. Processing information over and over till you lose the edge.

So a committee discusses an issue then refers it to the executive committee. Then the executive committee takes it to the board. This would be great if the issue deserved lots of discussion. And sometimes, issues do, indeed.

Beware: repeated discussion may not add value. And by the time the issue gets to the board, some people have already talked themselves out. They’re bored. They’re impatient. And they act like it. So the full board – some of who were not on the previous committees – feels as if the discussion is getting short shrift. There’s nothing quite like trying to have a discussion when others say, ‘Oh yes, we already talked about that and…’ Exclusionary!

Fixing the Executive Committee Problem

Every single time I reread the words above in Simone’s responses, do I not only think about how much sense they make, but I also re-live every board meeting I have been part of using this beast we call an “executive committee.” They are not good memorials, especially now that I know better.

Correcting the problem is simple. Abolish the executive committee ASAP! Yes, I said it plain and simple. Literally, just dismantle it and then have a wonderfully open discussion about it at the next board meeting. It may just be your best and most engaging board meeting ever!

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  • Jay Love

    Thanks John, numerous excellent points . . .
  • John G Lynch

    I see the arguments presented here more as reasons to increase board member engagement rather than abolish the executive committee. Major determinants of a high functioning board include board member engagement and having the appropriate balance of skill sets on the board. How a board is structured depends in part on contextual factors such as the size of the board, major changes affecting the organization and what the strategic plan requires. There are both high functioning and low functioning boards that employ an executive committee just as there are both high functioning and low functioning boards that do not employ one. Anecdotal evidence of low functioning boards where the executive committee is not making the board better is not a reason to categorically write off a governance tool that may be necessary and even helpful in certain situations. One additional observation from serving on two boards with executive committees: Not all committees move in lock-step. There can be discussion, debate, disagreement and compromise at any level of board structure. The characterization of the executive committee as a harmonious group unilaterally imposing its agenda on the rest of the board for rubber stamp approval is plausible but not entirely realistic. I think there are important points made in this post but I believe the conclusion should be a call for boards to strategically rethink how they approach member engagement and inclusion rather than stating that executive committees, one of many tools available to boards, are anathema.
  • Jay Love

    Michael that is an excellent idea . . .
  • Michael Wyland

    Emphatically agreed! However, I would advocate for the creation of a Governance Committee responsible for focusing on board issues, including board member education, board recruitment, etc. This committee is emphatically *not* a substitute for the Executive Committee and cannot be used to act in lieu of the full board.
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