As associations grow and mature, they can find themselves with too many committees. There might be standing committees that are required by the association's bylaws or others that have been formed over time and never disbanded. An association's leaders might ask, how many committees do we really need?

Committees play a key role in the governance of an association. Boards of all sizes often do their real work at the committee level, and this is particularly true for large boards. Committees often include members of the association who are not on the board, which allows them to become involved and demonstrate their leadership ability.

On the other hand, committees can be a drain on an association's resources, both human and financial. Too many committee meetings will result in overload and meeting fatigue - participation drops significantly when the committee members are overwhelmed, bored, or uninterested in the committee's work (or lack of work).

To address the problem of too many committees - or perhaps the wrong committees - follow the four golden rules for committees:

  1. Not every committee has a right to exist forever.
  2. A committee must have real work and goals to be of value to the association and the committee members.  
  3. Even standing committees can be changed through bylaw amendments.  
  4. Don't create a committee when a task force or study group will do.

# 1. Killing Committees Gracefully

There are several ways to pare down an association's committees: "zero based" committees and sunsetting are particularly effective.

The zero based committee system is based on the concept of a zero based budget. Each year the association starts fresh with only those committees in place that are required by its bylaws. From there, the board determines what the association's programmatic, operational and governance needs are for the year ahead and forms committees to address those needs.

Sunsetting committees takes a slightly different approach. Each committee is given a specified duration. The committee ceases to exist on the date that it reaches the end of its life unless the board takes action to extend the duration. This can be an effective tool for those associations that want change but do not want to take affirmative action (or responsibility) to bring it about.

# 2. Put Your Committees to Work

Committees often devote great time and energy to developing the perfect committee charter - which then gets put away and never looked at again. While a committee charter can be useful to focus a committee's work and help the members agree on what they are supposed to do, a committee charter alone isn't enough. The board should give each committee a specific charge, either at the start of each year or upon the committee's formation. The committee's charge will identify particular issues that the committee will focus on that year and the actions they are expected to take.

Committee actions can include:

  • Studying an issue and reporting back to the board on the results of the study;  
  • Recommending board action;
  • Monitoring activities such as conflicts of interest or finances;  
  • Developing new programs, fundraising strategies, or membership activities, usually in conjunction with staff and/or members; or  
  • Handling specific tasks for the board such as nominations or bylaws review.  

A committee with a charge that clearly states the expected action or result will be more focused, more energized, and more likely to deliver a product or service.

# 3. Review Standing Committees Regularly

It might be cumbersome to amend the association's bylaws just to change the standing committees that are established there. However, it is a good practice for an association to review its bylaws every two years or so. (This not only allows the association to identify those sections of the bylaws that should be changed but also allows the board to confirm that its practices conform to the bylaws.) A review of standing committees should be part of such a regular bylaws review.

# 4. Use Other Options

Task forces and study groups can be an informal, time-limited way to accomplish the same work as a committee. Typically, a task force or study group is formed to tackle a particular problem or issue and is expected to report back to the board promptly. Once the report is delivered, the group is disbanded.

By following these four golden rules of committees, any association can streamline its committee structure and make service on its committees a pleasure rather than a pain for its members.