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Seven Habits of Highly Effective Committees

Every nonprofit role I’ve held has involved working closely with committees – event committees, marketing committees, boards, and more. I’ve served as a volunteer member, a staff liaison, and a chair. Committees can be a powerful resource to an organization, providing vision, energy, and legwork for important initiatives. I’ve also seen committees be a source of constant frustration and challenge, and hope to share insights to help your committees thrive.

Here are my “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Committees”

1. Clear expectations. If you’ve been reading along with my blog posts so far, this won’t surprise you. I am a huge fan of keeping your eyes on the prize. That means setting clear goals and expectations for each committee and making them widely known. Create a one-page overview for your committee including:

  • Specific committee goals (ranked in order so everyone is on the same page about where to prioritize time and resources)

  • Leadership structure (committee members, leaders, chain of command, and connection to the staff and board)

  • Committee member expectations with time commitment and skills needed (if you expect members to raise $5,000 but never tell them, you will end up with frustrated volunteers and disappointed staff)

2. Strong leadership. I believe the best committee leaders spend 90% of their time:

  • Delegating (they assign projects clearly, provide help when needed, and follow-up effectively)

  • Motivating (they keep the mission top-of-mind and can inspire members to act)

  • Connecting (keeping an eye on the big picture, they connect smaller projects to bigger ideas and timelines, and keep everyone on track toward goals)

3. Accountability. Feelings of frustration abound when some members of a committee are significantly more engaged than others, and when work meant for 15 people is instead being done by 5. To avoid this common occurrence on volunteer teams:

  • Set timelines when projects are delegated and follow up when something is due

  • Realize when the committee is over-extended (more work than people) and scale back accordingly, focusing on your top tier goals and priorities

  • Partner up on projects. Some people work better when they can bounce around ideas with someone, or have a partner checking in regularly. It also fosters relationship building on the team.

4. Proper authority. Committees, staff, and board should all be on the same page about where the committee’s role is to make decisions and where they are advising and making recommendations instead. They should be given clear parameters for success and at least some opportunity for creativity and risk.

5. Recruiting plan. For annual events or committees, you should have opportunities for recruiting others to join the team or move into leadership roles. Some of my favorite tactics are:

  • Have sub-chair roles overseeing smaller portions of the event or project to build your leadership pipeline and buy-in.

  • Host parties or meetings that are open to non-committee members such as an auction brainstorming dinner or donation collection party.

  • Encourage existing committee members to invite a like-minded friend. This brings in fresh ideas and increases buy-in from the existing committee members.

6. Fun. Committee leaders also need to steward the morale of the team. Ignoring team-building or having fun as a team means your committee members are less likely to want to come to meetings and events, and carries a higher risk of volunteer burnout. This is also part of keeping the big picture in mind since your committee members likely also hold other roles in your organization – donor, volunteer, staff, board, etc. They will be more engaged with the organization as a whole if they enjoy their time supporting it.

7. Appreciation. I saved the best for last. Appreciating your volunteers and staff is critical. If they feel appreciated, they are more likely to fulfill their commitment, come back for another year, invite friends, become donors, and so much more. Volunteers want to know that their time and effort mattered. There are so many options for doing this well and you should choose several of these methods:

  • Recognize them publicly (at the event, in social media or a newsletter, etc)

  • Host a separate appreciation event and invite their family (remember that when a volunteer spends a lot of time on a project, their family is also making adjustments to support their work)

  • Have a board member or high level staff member call them

  • Send a gift of appreciation

  • Send a heartfelt note, outlining the value of their contributions and connecting it back to the mission (“Because of you, we were able to raise the money needed to fund XYZ program for the year”)

  • Develop an annual volunteer award for someone who went above & beyond

  • Get creative!

Next week I’ll share examples of common committee challenges and specific suggestions to address them. Let me know if you have an example you’d like help with!

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