Monday, January 21, 2013

Actors in the Play

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I keep finding myself in discussions about the role of committees in association governance and management. Some folks think all committees must report to the Board. That is their natural home, they say. They're made up of volunteer members, after all. Who better to supervise them but the volunteers they and their peers have elected to leadership?

I've seen this perspective taken to dysfunctional extremes. Just the other day, a colleague shared with me the organizational chart of her association, and it, like many others I've seen, clearly showed all the association committees reporting directly to the board. They were on one side of the chart. On the other, coded in a different color, was all the staff reporting up through the executive director, who then reported to the board. There was absolutely no connection between the staff and the committees.

Although I doubt her organization actually functions this way, what the chart said to me was that each and every committee was on an equal management footing with the executive director. On paper, she had no authority over them, and the board clearly had the option to delegate management functions to any combination of committees instead of its hired executive.

This, to me, is madness. I've written before that the only committees that should report to the board are those it appoints to help it fulfill its governance function--such as a nominating committee or an audit committee. Any committee that helps the association execute its programs--which is the job of the vast majority of association committees I'm familiar with--should report to the executive director. This is the person responsible for program execution. In many associations this person needs the time, talents and expertise of volunteer members to successfully complete that task, but all of those efforts should be under his or her direction. How can this person be expected to marshal and align the appropriate resources if they are unable to exercise leadership authority over that process?

One of my past board chairs had a metaphor he liked to use with our board to help communicate the right idea about our committees and their role in our organization. Let me paraphrase.

"We're putting on a play. It's a big Broadway production with a lot of moving parts, and it will need a firm hand if it's going to come off the way we all hope it will.

"The board is the producer. It has the vision and works to raise the necessary money and resources.

"Our CEO is the director. He's the one we've hired to bring our production to life and to make the tough calls about how the resources are to be used.

"And we, the individual board members, when we serve on committees, we're the actors in the play. Some of us will have starring roles and some of us will have bit parts, but when we're on stage, every one of us will have to take direction from our director. Collectively, we have set the vision, but only the director can take us where we need to go."

You'll forgive me for thinking that this is just about right.

This post written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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