Monday, November 16, 2015

All Committees Are Not Created Equal

Got into a friendly argument with a colleague about last week's post, where I revisited an idea that I've discussed before: that program committees should report to an association's Chief Staff Executive, or CEO, and not its Board of Directors.

His take? Absolutely not. Never. Committees must always been created by and report directly to the Board.

Governance committees, yes, I replied. Committees that are needed to assist the Board fulfill its governance responsibilities should only be created by the Board and report to it. But committees that are needed to assist the association execute its programs? That's a different story. If the Chief Staff Executive is to be held responsible for managing the association, then allowing program committees to be created by and report to the Board risks undermining the executive's authority.

I saw that he was listening to me, but I don't think he really absorbed what I was saying.

What if the CEO sets up a committee, reporting to him, to determine his own compensation? Wouldn't that be undermining the Board's authority?

Of course. But executive compensation is a governance function. I never said a committee with that purpose should report to the CEO.

Do your committees currently report to you?

No. As I said in the post, we have four different kinds of committees, two engaged in governance who clearly report to the Board, and two engaged in management who, truth be told, don't currently report to anyone. But when the time comes to disband or create these management committees, that's clearly a function I take ownership of.

When's the last time this happened?

This year. I disbanded one committee whose purpose was too broad and replaced it with three smaller committees, each with a much narrower purpose.

Did your Board approve that?

Not really. I presented it as part of the action plan I had developed for the year, but I didn't ask for a vote on it.

Then you're asking for trouble, my colleague told me. Do you know what it means to be staff-driven?

Of course.

Well, when things become too staff-driven, my experience has been that Boards tend to think it's time to replace the CEO.

I haven't named my colleague here, primarily because I've taken the liberty to paraphrase his argument, rather than quote it directly. I may be misrepresenting what he specifically said and thinks (and, if so, friend, I do apologoze), but I have, I think, described a perspective that is all-too-prevalent in the association world.

And what is that perspective? In its simplest phraseology: Staff-driven = bad; Volunteer-driven = good.

My perspective is different, and that perspective must be understood if my argument about who committees should report to is going to make any sense.

"Staff-driven = bad; Volunteer-driven = good" is a false dichotomy. In fact, both staff-driven and volunteer-driven are both good and bad. You've probably already guessed it, but it breaks down like this.

When it comes to governance, volunteer-driven is good and staff-driven is bad. But when it comes to management, staff-driven is good and volunteer-driven is bad.

If you accept this, then my argument about different committees with different purposes reporting to different entities should make more sense. Not all committees are created equal. And as long as some help with governance and others help with management, you don't want them to be.

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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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