Let Go of the Executive Committee

Successful diversity people on a meeting.


Why Boards Have Executive Committees

Many nonprofit boards still have executive committees.  Most of these boards haven’t stopped to consider why they have them or if they really need them. Like the old joke about cutting the end off the ham roast, we continue some practices long after they serve a purpose. An executive committee may have been a good response when it was difficult for the full board to meet, or when communication was difficult, expensive, or slow. With the options available now to connect groups of people quickly and cheaply, the only reasons for maintaining a standing executive committee are bad ones.

Executive Committees Undermine the Cohesive Structure of a Healthy Board

Over time, the executive committee tends to become a mini-board. Staff, and those directors not on the executive committee, may even begin to see it as the “real board.” Worse still, directors not on the executive committee may see themselves as a subordiate class of board member. This can reduce motivation, commitment, and participation.

The existence of an executive committee can mask problems that should be solved directly. One popular rationale for an executive committee is that the board is too big to meet regularly or to make pressing decisions. But that is a case for reducing the size of the board, not for subdividing it. Another rationale is that some decisions are too sensitive in nature or require more confidentiality than can be expected from the full board. Again, that is a case for reducing the size of the board—or releasing from the board any director who cannot keep confidences. A committee’s role should only be to bring options to the full board, never to make significant decisions for the board. If an item seems too sensitive or a decision too important for the full board to handle, then take that as a sign that something is amiss in the board’s structure or composition.

Let Go of the Executive Committee

If your board still has an executive committee, try this test: suspend use of the committee for a specific time, say 18 to 24 months. Do this with the understanding that at the end of the test period, everything reverts to how it was, unless the board decides to make a change. During the test, operate as much as possible as a full board, using committees only to carry out particular assignments at the direction of the board. As challenges come up, take time to understand the cause. Is the problem a result of not using an executive committee? Or is it an indication of a larger board issue?

10-minute Board Discussion

[For boards with executive committees] How does having an executive committee change the way we work as a board? 

[For boards without executive committees] Does each of our committees serve an ongoing purpose?


Image courtesy of iStockphoto/skynesher

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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