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The committee conundrum.

Are your committees resources or barriers? Realize the potential of the committee process by recognizing what works--and what doesn't.

Committees: Associations often have considerable difficulty living with them but, as membership organizations, cannot live without them. Why do associations encounter so many problems with committees? The answer, in a word, is evolution.

As organizational structures throughout society have evolved, the committee has been the vehicle for facilitating functional processes: creating, formulating, rejecting, managing, representing, evaluating, and other functions that relate to the interactive requirements of our society. This is a committee world.

Committees are important to the growth and success of associations--but not necessarily in the same ways, or with the same structures, or for the same reasons as in the past. Recognizing what does and does not work in the committee process is the key to emerging from committee confusion and making the most of the significant benefits that efficiently organized committees bring to associations.

Today's committees

That many associations still operate with the same committee management structures and rules under which they were first created results in a number of situations that impair the strength and effectiveness of many committees.

1. Failure to articulate a mission. Effective committees must have a well-defined mission and objectives. In setting the direction of the organization, the chief executive officer, in cooperation with the executive committee or board, must ensure that all committees have a clear understanding of the purpose for which they were convened. Otherwise, the committees will flounder.

2. Analysis paralysis. Without a clear mission and set of objectives, the committee may spend most of its time analyzing its position and role. In effect, the committee tries to establish a mission and set objectives without the advantage of understanding the large picture of the association and all of the components that should go into decision making.

3. Lack of clarity regarding function versus task. Another symptom of an inadequate mission is confusion among committee participants as to whether they are performing an ongoing function for the association. For example, is an education committee formed to take responsibility for all members' educational needs, or is it supposed to accomplish a specific task, such as preparing a report on a particular issue or evaluating a specific program?

4. Confusion of activity with achievement. This ailment is the common cold of committees that have trouble clarifying ambiguous missions. Unfortunately, these committees often become very active, but activities take the form of programming that, because of the lack of a good plan, can be detrimental to the organization.

5. Unwise delegation. Another dangerous pitfall is the tendency to delegate important responsibilities to inappropriate or inexperienced committees. A primary example is the finance committee, also knows as the budget committee or audit committee. In most associations, where the responsibility for creating a budget, controlling the finances, and monitoring the financial operation is in the hands of one or more committees, the board and executive committee have completely abdicated one of their most important functions. Frequently they place that function in the hands of inexperienced, if not arbitrary and antagonistic, individuals. It is my strong belief that if an organization has a board, and most do, then that board, or its executive committee, is specifically responsible for the financial health of the organization. The financial function should not be delegated outside of the board or executive committee under any circumstances.

A similar pitfall of delegating responsibilities occurs when an executive committee created from a large board performs all of the functions of that board. In effect, the board becomes a rubber stamp for its executive committee actions.

Another unwise delegation of responsibility is establishment by a board or executive committee of long-range planning committees. This important activity must be performed by the organization's active leadership, not by a group whose overall perspective is historical. If you have past volunteer leaders who are capable of making valuable contributions to long-range planning, reelect them.

Symptoms of inappropriate delegation also work their way into many so-called standing committees. One example is the education or conference program committee, through which an organization with a massive superstructure of elected and committee leadership turns over its entire education or conference program to one individual, perhaps a member who might not be qualified in this area. (How often do you go to a program run by a person who has nothing to do with your business or profession?) It's even more frightening to think of the power given to individual chairs in areas such as industry relations, public relations, government relations, and certification.

Add one more symptom to these particular ailments, and they really lead to nightmares. The level of competency from one chair to another, from one term to another, creates an inconsistency that can literally undermine the committee function, damage the association's overall mission, kill a program, or destroy an image.

Does this paint the picture that committees cannot work? Certainly not. Does it criticize the function of committees within volunteer organizations? Again, no. What I am saying is that the state of the art of volunteer leadership in association management has progressed far beyond the point of allowing these types of situations to continue.

Tomorrow's committees

Solving these current problems is not difficult if we adhere to the basic, modern concepts that have evolved for good association management. Let's look at the bright side (and right side) of managing the committees of the future.

1. Remember that people have less time to devote to association activities. Volunteer leaders do not want to waste their time on poorly structured and managed committees. The committee must be efficient and effective to attract the level of leadership our organizations will need in the future.

2. Volunteer leaders must be succinct in identifying specific missions and objectives. In addition, the leadership must provide committees with specific guidelines on objectives, time, budget, and authority.

3. Volunteer committee chairs must have access to volunteer committee management techniques. Managing a volunteer committee is a difficult process that requires some specific knowledge and ability. Volunteer committee chairs should be trained to apply Roberts' Rules of Order as well as to motivate volunteers in a committee environment; reward volunteers; run meetings; develop an agenda based on identified tasks or objectives; and delegate and facilitate tasks.

4. Achieving direction is the first step. Empowerment is the second. The committee chair and members must feel that they have the power to fulfill their function. If they do not feel that their work is effective, soon it will not be.

5. Committee chairs must be rewarded for their efforts. Positive recognition is one of the most important rewards for dedicated committee chairs. Advancement within the volunteer leadership of the association is another valuable reward. Associations must have a very clear-cut advancement policy and strive to eliminate any politics that may interfere with the process.

6. Associations must clearly define committee structures. Asking someone to chair a committee with an extremely important mission and then virtually abandoning the group is counterproductive. It is the responsibility of the organization leadership to provide the guidance for the structure, size, and appointment of specific individuals to each committee.

The day of the volunteer

Motivating volunteer leaders has become one of the toughest issues associations face. Members have less time to devote to activities, and because of the many problems already described, the attraction of associations is diminishing. This is occurring because of organizational politics and inefficiencies, the many diversions of our society, and a growing interest in non-work-related activities.

It is important to remember that effective management of committees can be the most critical tool in increasing volunteer participation and can provide the ultimate volunteer motivation. Volunteer leaders will want to increase their involvement in committees if the process, the potential for achievement, and the rewards meet their needs.

Raymond J. Hall is executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Electronics Representatives Association, Chicago.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Hall, Raymond J.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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