Erin Volland, CAE
Erin Volland, MPA, CAE, is a senior consultant at the Association Management Center.
Highly functional committees and task forces are just as important as a high-functioning board. One depends on the other to govern well. Find out why—and how to make yours as effective as possible.
Much of the focus on volunteer leader education and orientation is on the board of directors—and rightly so. If the board is dysfunctional, the whole organization will likely follow suit. After the importance of the board comes the importance of committee and task force function.
A board depends on effective committees and task forces to get its strategic and generative work done. If a board has to manage dysfunctional committees and task forces or do committee work, it cannot meet its goals and potential.
Many habits of high-functioning boards hold true for committees and task forces:
Developing high-functioning committees takes dedication and effort. The following areas that are so important to the board’s work also drive committee and task force success.
How do your committee and task force members get their roles? Are they elected from the membership? Do they fill out an application? Are they appointed by the board chair? Are they approved by the board? Do these applicants know what skills and competencies would make them successful as a committee or task force member?
To meet committee and task force charges and goals, the competencies and skill sets needed in members should be defined and recruited. As defined in Mark Engle’s work on the board selection process, the competencies can fall into the following categories: group skills, interpersonal skills, personal skills, technical skills, and personal attributes.
The importance of balance in committee leadership cannot be overestimated. Associations should do the work to define the elements that must be represented on their committees in order to advance their work. These elements may include race, ethnicity, education, career stage, workplace, leadership style, and hard skills. For standing committees with longer terms, the association should ask composition questions examining what elements are already present and what elements they need to strengthen in order to address any multi-representational gaps that exist.
They should then widely share the needed competencies with all potential volunteers so they can self-select into or out of committee or task force service based on how their competencies align.
A board depends on effective committees and task forces to get its strategic and generative work done.
While the board chair-CEO relationship is critical to success, the partnership between the committee or task force chair and staff liaison is also powerful. Even though there is no formal reporting relationship between staff and committees or task forces as there is between the CEO and board, an effective partnership is essential.
Whether the work involves an ongoing standing committee or a time-bound task force, members should use their specific expertise—their defined competencies—to address opportunities or problems presented by the board. Committee and task force members also generate and evaluate ideas and make recommendations to the board.
Staff liaisons work in partnership with committees and task forces to enable their success, offer suggestions and observations, and manage day-to-day operations. For standing committees, staff also often serve as the historical reference for past decisions and recommendations. Staff members should be trained to support committees and task forces and build that effective partnership with volunteer leaders.
Often staff liaisons are assigned committee or task force work based on their role in the organization, but just because someone is an expert in a particular focus or field does not mean they are also an expert in volunteer management. Educate staff to support committees and task forces and ultimately the board will function better, too.
Associations do not typically assess committee or task force performance—or the engagement of individual members—at the end of a term or project, but this evaluation would be helpful so that strong performers can be encouraged along to higher levels of leadership. Assessing committee and task force member and chair performance helps to build the pipeline of potential board members.
Many evaluation tools are available to assess volunteer performance. The tools an association uses should consider the defined competencies for leadership roles. Some helpful assessments, like StrengthFinders and DiSC, focus on a person’s style and preferences, while others evaluate introvert and extrovert characteristics.
All of this might seem like a huge task, especially when many organizations have yet to complete this work with their boards and considering all the changes the pandemic has brought. Consider the work of developing high-functioning committees and task forces the second phase of achieving your high-functioning board. The effort is an investment in the ability of your board to focus on advancing your organization’s strategy and mission. What is more important than that?