Monday, November 9, 2015

A Committee By Any Other Name

One of the very first posts I wrote for this blog (back in September 2011) was titled, "Should Committees Report to the Board?" and it challenged that very piece of conventional wisdom. In the post, I argued that committees whose function was programmatic (i.e., related to how the association managed its programs, not how it governed itself) should, in fact, report to the chief staff executive.

It was intended as a provocative notion, informed mostly by the frustration I was feeling at this time with committee reports clouding up the agenda of a volunteer Board I was serving on. But I recently had reason to revisit this post and the notion it offered, and I have to say that I feel even more strongly about it today as I did back in 2011.

And that, despite the fact that my very own association hasn't formally adopted this convention.

What we have done, and what I recently discovered the need to communicate more clearly throughout our organization, is to identify four different types of "committees," each with a different core function in our association. In our lexicon, "committee" is more appropriately used as a category, describing a class of volunteer bodies that help the association govern and manage itself. Our four types of committees are:

1. Governance Bodies. These are the committees the Board appoints to help it fulfill its governance responsibilities. Examples that most are familiar with are the Audit Committee and the Nominating Committee. When there is Board work that consistently needs to be done away from the Board table, the Board appoints one of these committees to tackle it. Other associations might call these Standing Committees.

2. Strategic Task Forces. These are also committees appointed by the Board, but with a much more specific purpose. Working with one of the areas of strategic priority identified by the Board, the task force helps define what success "looks like," creating a clear set of ends statements and success indicators, and tracking progress against those metrics over time. Other associations may not have examples of these committees, since they are by-products of the specific strategy defining and execution process that our association uses.

3. Working Committees. These committees provide oversight to association programs, and help engage members in program development and delivery. Every association in my experience has committees like these, with typical examples being the Education Committee, the Marketing Committee, and the Membership Committee. When offering my provocative idea about having committees report to the chief staff executive, it was the Working Committees in our structure that I had in mind.

4. Constituency Councils. These are committees organized around specific constituencies in the industry or profession represented by the association. In our world, some examples are the Distributor Council (comprised of fluid power distributors), the Pneumatics Council (comprised of manufacturers of pneumatic products), and the Future Leaders Network (comprised of individuals identified by our member organizations as young and emerging leaders). Their job is to influence program development and delivery to better serve the individual needs of the constituencies they represent, and to help their members get plugged into the association and its benefits.

Now, part of me can't help but wonder if one of the things that creates confusion is the way I refer to them all as "committees," even though they all, intentionally, have been given distinct names--Governance Bodies, Strategic Task Forces, Working Committees, and Constituency Councils. That was done to underscore the idea that we were dealing with four different things with four different functions in our organization. Except, again, these terms themselves are basically categories, since the items that nest under them are sometimes called Committees (e.g., the Audit Committee is a Governance Body). Maybe it would be better to adopt the same term across the board, and allow the modifier attached to it to denote the difference of purpose and function (i.e., Governance Committees, Strategic Committees, Working Committees, and Constituency Committees).

Hmmm. I'll have to think about that one.

But the larger point is that, however we have described these different kinds of committees, we haven't done much to clarify who they report to--if, in fact, they report to anyone at all. Things are much more straightforward with the Governance Bodies and the Strategic Task Forces, as they regularly report their recommendations for action to the Board. But. if I'm going to be honest, I'd have to admit that our Working Committees and our Constituency Councils reside in a kind of nebulous state. Neither they nor the staff members who try to support them fully understand their role they are supposed to play in our organization.

And that is something I need to start dealing with.

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This post was 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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