Making committees work

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You know the joke - if God had struck a committee to create the world, it may never have come to be, and certainly not in six days. The mere word, "committee" fills us with dread.

I think the committee is getting a bum rap. It is not the committee concept itself that is flawed. The way committees are run is often the problem. This article addresses the "dos and don'ts" of successfully running a committee.

But what is a Successful Committee?

A successful committee is one that accomplishes its goal(s) within the timelines set, with each member feeling that their time and ideas were used more productively and effectively than if they had worked on the task individually. An unsuccessful committee is one that does not accomplish its goals, does so poorly, or wastes the time and talents of its members.

Keys to a Successful Committee - The Dos and Don'ts

1. Examine your purpose

DO give serious thought to why the committee is being struck in the first place.

  • Is the task better done by a group or by one person?
  • Is the work of the committee important and relevant to its members?
  • Do the potential members realistically have the time to join another committee? Is this task a priority over others that your people should be working on?
  • Is there another group already in place that can take on the task?

DON'T start a committee for the wrong reasons. What are some of the "biggest" wrong reasons? To strike a committee to make decisions that management doesn't want to make, or to make decisions that are already made (this is a favourite of government).

TIP: Discuss the committee's role until it is clear. If necessary, go back to those who struck the committee for clarification. There is no bigger waste of time than a committee that doesn't know what it's doing (this happens more than we'd like to admit.)

2. Choose your chair carefully

DO assign a committee Chair to set the agenda, run the meetings, keep people on track and make sure that meetings start and end on time. A co-chair can also be assigned to fill in for the Chair when necessary.

DON'T let the Chair be usurped. This can happen when representatives of management on are the committee, and staff or a volunteer is chairing. If managers take over the meeting, staff and volunteers may not feel they have an equal voice on the committee.

3. Making the most of minutes

DO assign someone to take minutes, whether that is one person or a rotation schedule made up for all members.

DON'T rotate minute taking unless you set up a schedule in advance or you will waste time at the beginning of each meeting trying to find a volunteer to take notes.

TIP: Don't automatically choose clerical staff to take minutes. They have other valuable contributions to make.

4. More minute reminders

DO outline clearly what information is needed in the minutes. When minutes are distributed, attach any handouts for members who were absent.

DON'T hand out minutes at the beginning of meetings unless there is time to let people read them over.

TIP: A great time saver! Develop a form for minute taking, on which staff simply fill in blanks and then make photocopies. Take advantage of laptop computers for minute taking as well.

5. Timing is everything

DO start committee meetings on time, regardless of who has not yet arrived.

DON'T let meetings run overtime. If time runs out, defer items to the next meeting. If time consistently runs out, consider scheduling longer meetings.

TIP: Start a loonie or toonie jar for late arrivers. The funds can go towards supporting an agency program or for a supporter campaign, such as the United Way. This is a fun way to urge people to be on time.

Don't tolerate chronic late arrivers. The problem won't go away by ignoring it.

A SNEAKY TIP: Make sure meetings finish on time by booking them to end just before another meeting is scheduled to start in the same room.

6. Maintaining the flow

DO stick to your guns about not accepting interruptions.

DON'T allow interruptions unless it is an emergency. Members should not be expected to take phone calls or to see people during meetings.

TIP: To decrease nuisance interruptions, tell the receptionist when your group is in a meeting. Post a note on the door that you are "in session" and put any phones in the room on "do not disturb." Better yet, meet somewhere outside the office.

7. Keeping to the agenda

DO stick to the agenda. Defer new items that come up to "new business" or to another meeting.

DON'T let any one member take over the meeting with her "own agenda."

TIP: If a certain issue or concern keeps coming up, consider re-evaluating your agenda. You may be putting the cart before the horse.

8. Choosing your location

DO be flexible in meeting places. The Boardroom at the main office may not be the best place for everyone.

DON'T choose uncomfortable meeting places -- room temperature, noise levels, interruptions, awful chairs -- All such apparently minor aspects can affect your meeting process.

TIP: Consider a central location, a less formal atmosphere, or the use of technology - such as teleconferencing and the Internet - for your meetings.

9. Assigning tasks

DO assign clear tasks and responsibilities for committee members. Encourage contact between meetings to get these tasks done. Ensure that responsibilities are evenly distributed among committee members.

DON'T let members "off the hook" if they chronically fail to follow through on their responsibilities. Problem-solve by discussing why things aren't getting done.

TIP: When with assigning tasks, include a deadline date to help people set priorities.

10. Be wary of scheduling difficulties

DO remind members of meetings. Ask members to call if they cannot attend, and decide in advance whether alternates should be sent for absent members.

DON'T hold a meeting if the majority of members have cancelled. You will be wasting the time of those who do attend.

TIP: Consider how often you should meet. Regular meetings give people something to expect. However, the WORST reason to meet is just because you always do! Make sure there is something that needs to be done - cancel if there isn't.

11. Try to be consistent

DO stick with decisions. Constantly changing things is very frustrating for committee members.

DON'T continue a committee whose decisions not being followed through. This is a waste of time and energy, and will lead to apathy and resentment.

12. Create a collaborative culture

Last but not least, DO invoke the, "There are no stupid questions" rule. Make sure members feel comfortable to ask any questions when they don't understand.

And DON'T forget to have some fun!

Kristin Duare McKinnon has diverse front-line and administrative experience in nonprofit organizations providing health, social, and community services. She now has her own business, KDM, which offers program support to the non-profit sector. Kristin's special interests include leadership and service excellence, program development and evaluation, volunteer management, and working with seniors and people with disabilities. She can be reached at KDM, P.O. Box 429, Pontypool, ON; Phone (705) 277-3262; Fax (705) 277-2921.

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