To Committee or Not to Committee? That is the Question…

Every non-profit I have ever been involved with, at some point gets to a level, where the question of whether or not to start using committees comes up.

In today’s blog we talk about the establishing committees, why they are useful and whether or not they are right for your organization. Read on to find out….

Does My Organization Need Committees?

A committee is a group of individuals within a nonprofit organization who come together to focus on a specific area or task. Committees are usually formed to streamline decision-making, oversee certain functions, or advance specific initiatives within the organization. Examples of nonprofit committees include finance committees, fundraising committees, audit committees, and event planning committees. Membership and responsibilities are defined by the organization’s bylaws or governing documents. Often committees will include external specialists.

Most committees do not have voting powers, merely the power to make recommendations. Committees are established by a charter. A committee charter is a document that defines the objectives, scope of authority, and responsibilities of a committee formed by the board of directors within an organization. It includes details such as:

  • Purpose: The specific functions and tasks the committee is expected to perform.
  • Authority: The extent to which the committee can make decisions or must defer to the full board for approval.
  • Membership: Criteria for committee membership and the process for appointing members.
  • Structure: The size of the committee, leadership roles (such as chairperson), and any subcommittees.
  • Meetings: Frequency of meetings, quorum requirements, and procedures for calling meetings and documenting minutes.
  • Responsibilities: Detailed duties, including oversight of specific areas, advising the board, and recommendations on policy or strategy.
  • Reporting: How and when the committee reports to the full board on its activities and decisions.
  • Evaluation: Method for assessing the committee’s performance and effectiveness.

Some organizations love committees. From fundraising to risk management there are committees for everything. I find these are usually inefficient vehicles for accomplishing change. They are slow to take action or make decisions. Committees create a level of bureaucracy in organizations, particularly when laden with rules and paperwork. I find organizations who have a lot of committees do not have governance focused boards. They have boards who micromanage and like to get into the weeds.

Committees can be very effective, particularly for bringing in outsiders who may be specialists in a particular area. I have often encouraged organizations to see them as a recruiting tool for board members. You can bring in someone for a limited engagement, try them out and then invite them to be on the board if they are good prospect.

Personally, I am not a huge fan of permanent committees. I think committees are much more impactful when they are established for a specific purpose, such as financial review, change management, hiring an executive director or hosting a specific event. Some organizations have Budget or Audit committees that emerge for a period each year to accomplish a specific function, but then go back to being dormant.

However, they clearly serve a purpose for larger organizations. In larger organizations it is more difficult to cover everything in a main meeting. More work is left to committees to work out the minutia of running an organization, working and consulting with staff and overseeing different aspects of the organization.

Nonprofits should use committees for several reasons and under specific circumstances:

Why Use Committees:

  • Expertise and Focus: Committees allow individuals with specialized knowledge or skills to focus on complex issues which require detailed analysis and discussion, leading to more informed decision-making.
  • Efficiency: By dividing work among smaller groups, boards can operate more efficiently, as committees can delve into issues more deeply than the entire board might be able to in full meetings.
  • Engagement: Committees provide opportunities for board members and sometimes non-board members to contribute meaningfully to the organization by engaging in specific areas of interest or need.
  • Oversight: They facilitate better oversight of different organizational functions by providing focused monitoring and accountability.
  • Responsiveness: Committees can react and address issues more quickly than the full board might be able to due to their smaller size and focused scope.
  • Risk Management: Through specialized attention to areas like finance or audit, committees help identify and mitigate potential risks.

When to Use Committees:


Establish standing committees (like finance, governance, or fundraising) to manage ongoing tasks that are critical to the organization’s operations, particularly if you are a growing organization or in a higher risk industry. Otherwise stay away as they will bloat up your organization and heavily burden your already busy staff and board.

Special Initiatives:

Create ad hoc or temporary committees when a specific project arises that requires dedicated attention outside the scope of existing committees. These are my favourite. Examples of these are:

  • Strategic Planning: When the organization is undergoing strategic planning, a committee can be tasked with overseeing the development and implementation of the plan.
  • Compliance and Legal Matters: To ensure compliance with laws and regulations, an audit or compliance committee should be formed to conduct a particular task or review. This is where you can invite external experts.
  • Board Development: To manage the recruitment, orientation, training, and evaluation of board members, a governance or nominating committee is appropriate.
  • Internal Controls and Financial Accountability: For monitoring the integrity of financial statements, internal audits and financial processes and policies. Budget or Audit committees are also very good and I would always have external experts on your committee.

When To Stay Away From Committees

You should definitely stay away from committees if the following situations apply:

  • A Small Board: If the board is too small, creating committees might be impractical as the same few members would need to serve on multiple committees, leading to overextension and inefficiency.
  • Simple Operations: For organizations with straightforward operations or limited activities, the full board can often handle issues without the need for specialized committees.
  • Limited Resources: Committees require time and resources. If an organization lacks the capacity to support additional meetings and administrative tasks, it may be better to handle matters at full board meetings.
  • A Risk of Silos: Sometimes committees can operate in silos, disconnected from the full board or other committees, which can lead to communication breakdowns and inconsistent decision-making.
  • Over-Delegation: There’s a risk that the board might become too reliant on committees, leading to a lack of engagement by the full board on important issues.
  • Redundancy: If the tasks of a committee overlap significantly with those of another committee or with the responsibilities of staff, it might be unnecessary and counterproductive to have such a committee.
  • Decision-Making Bottlenecks: If committees slow down decision-making by creating additional layers of approval, they may hinder rather than help an organization’s agility and responsiveness.

In these scenarios, it might be more effective for the full board to address issues collectively or through ad hoc task forces that disband after addressing a specific issue.

Regardless, I don’t think that committees are going anywhere anytime soon, irrespective of what I think. Just promise that before you go and start committees, talk to others who currently have them to assess if they are right for you. It is more difficult to eliminate them once they are started and chartered into existence.

My name is Carmen and I have worked in and with this sector for over 15 years as a Management Consultant and dedicated advisor. I am currently the President and Co-Founder of Pharo Non-Profit, where we build tools and resources to scale impact in this sector.

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