Creating a Board Committee that Works

Being appointed to chair a committee is the easy part. This practical advice, tested in the real world, will help ensure success.

Board committees are often where much of the real work of the board gets done—but they are also often a source of frustration. They may not function effectively, or if they do, it may be at the cost of leaning too heavily on the few “usual suspects”—that handful of particularly committed and hardworking supporters for whom we are so grateful, and whom we risk burning out.

Just as a chorus needs well-prepared and focused artistic leadership to reach its musical potential, a committee requires well-prepared and focused leadership to accomplish its goals. The good news is that while becoming a conductor requires many years of dedicated training, leading a committee doesn’t require a specialized degree. Even if you have never led a committee before, you will likely find that the skills you have already developed to succeed in other areas of your life are the ones you will use to serve effectively in this area as well. 

You do not have to be responsible for an entire choral organization to make a big difference. If you are a supporter prepared to do some real work and can identify an area in which you have particular interest and passion, you may be closer than you think to finding yourself designated a committee chair. But getting the job is the easy part. What do you do next? 

Getting Started

Focus on your mission. Get clear in your mind why you care about your choral organization’s mission in the first place. Write it down, and practice articulating it. Now do the same with the focus of your committee (for example: audience development or governance). Others will enrich your vision and add to it, but you will have to lead, at least for a time, so prepare yourself.

Plan ahead. Decide what time of year the committee should first meet. If in doubt, meet earlier! Planning is a force multiplier, meaning that it will allow you to make the most of the resources at your disposal. If resources like money and staff time are scarce, you must plan ahead to be effective. 

Recruit strong committee members. Much like auditioning members for an ensemble, this step is of primary importance. You will want to get to work on this well before your first meeting.

List the skills, experience, and passions that are relevant to your “dream committee.” Then divide the list into two categories: those you possess personally and those you do not. Make sure to include people with strengths that can balance your own areas of weakness.

Consider your “value proposition.” Why would someone want to join your committee?  Avoid negative reasons (“it’s not much of a time commitment” or “we don’t expect a donation”) and focus on the positive. Possible examples include:

- You enjoy working with the prospective member. 

- He or she likes the chorus and is already interested in the mission of the committee. 

- He or she is looking for a way to contribute and has relevant resources or skills. 

- He or she is interested in arts administration. Participation in the committee will offer a “peek behind the curtain.” 

- While not yet closely connected with your chorus, the prospective member is passionate about something closely allied to your organization’s mission (e.g. music education, volunteerism, lifelong learning). You see a way to combine this adjacent interest with work on the committee. 

Think as broadly as you can about recruiting. Anyone who is passionate about the topic or about your chorus is a potential committee member. For many types of committees, it is of major benefit to reach beyond your existing circle. One simple way to check whether you have reached “outside” is to consider whether any committee member (besides yourself) is already acquainted with every other member. If so, you may want to cast your net more broadly to create an environment that will generate new ideas.

Approach individuals with specific invitations, rather than groups with broadcast invitations. Do not stand up at a board meeting and say, “We’re starting a new committee. Does anyone want to join?” People will be much more likely to sign on if they know that you have considered how best to involve them. People in whom you see potential that they do not see themselves may require your help to understand how they can contribute—something that you can provide as part of a personal invitation. 

Recruit in strategic order. Review your list of prospective committee members and start with someone others like to work with. If that person agrees, then you can use his or her participation to recruit others. If one prospect is a real “stretch” (for example, very busy or highly sought after), make your appeal after people he or she respects have already committed. 

Running Efficient Meetings

Make the first meeting a success. As with a first choral rehearsal, the first committee meeting is where members will decide where the bar is set, whether the leader has a vision, and whether the group can work well together. Preparing fully will allow you to be both focused and flexible during the meeting, enabling you to balance sharing your passion and vision with listening well. Try these steps:

Introduce yourself, and explain why you care about the topic.

Have all members introduce themselves and share why they have joined the committee. 

A brainstorming session is an effective way to focus the committee on an important topic while committee members to get to know each other better. Remember, brainstorming involves articulating ideas in an environment free from judgment or even evaluation (cheers of approval are allowed). It works only if people feel comfortable. 

On a flip chart, produce a “mind map” of the brainstorming session as it evolves. Use this to develop a set of goals that your committee can agree upon. Have both the flip chart “mind map,” and the list of goals available at every meeting. Review them as appropriate, and in any event at least twice a year. 

Do not leave the meeting without including action steps for each member in the minutes of the meeting. Members may disengage if they are not active between meetings. End on time, but be available to chat afterwards. When you do, listen carefully to your members’ questions and interests, and think about how you might incorporate them into the committee’s work. 

Set manageable targets. Be sure that some of the goals set at the first meeting are “low hanging fruit” that your committee can make progress on right away. Setting something in motion in the short term creates momentum and ensures that the committee’s work is well grounded in reality. Break medium and long-term goals down into smaller steps that are attainable, yet reflect clear improvement. Nothing builds morale like success, and nothing communicates success like measurable progress. 

Assign portfolios. Consider each committee member a puzzle to be solved: how can they be best engaged and made effective?  What do they want to do? Pay close attention to members’ emerging interests and areas of effectiveness. As meetings progress, think about delegating an area of unique responsibility—a portfolio—to each person. Assigning portfolios is a much more effective way to elicit engagement, initiative, and creativity from committee members than simply assigning specific homework to accomplish before the next meeting. If members are uniquely responsible for something, they will feel—and be—necessary. Members with portfolios should set goals within their areas, report on and lead discussions and planning, and assign tasks to others as appropriate. As chair, be available to provide advice, including connecting members to resources that offer what you personally cannot. 

Involve the Whole Organization

Be considerate of staff concerns. If your chorus employs staff in areas similar to those addressed by the committee, treat them with care. While they will appreciate the help and interest represented by the committee, they may also be concerned that the committee will simply dream up lots more work for them to do. Reassure them that you are there to help, and that committee members are prepared to do work as required. Discuss this with committee members as you recruit.

Involve the board. Regularly provide the board with concise and encouraging reports, much as you would with a funder. Combine quantitative information about the measurable progress your committee is making with anecdotes that connect a story or a face to the data. Answer the question “how can the board help?” (even if the question is not posed out loud) with concrete suggestions that the board can act on. And stay in touch with the governance or nominating committee chair. There may be individuals he or she is considering for board membership who might join your committee as an intermediate step. There may also be non-board members of your committee who should be considered for board membership.

Give others the credit. When you report on the activity of the committee, give credit where credit is due—especially to members with specific portfolios. Encourage others to thank these committee members when they see them as well. Do not talk about yourself, unless it is to share your passion for the topic, or your general pleasure at how things are proceeding. Instead, talk about “the committee.” Likewise, train your committee members to credit others wherever possible. 

Maintain Your Momentum

Keep things fresh. As the committee begins to get a sense of itself and create its own routines, strive to retain freshness at committee meetings. As at rehearsals, a sense of occasion encourages good attendance. Here are some suggestions: 

Invite guests with particular expertise to address the committee on a one-time basis. 

Prepare members to report on progress made with their portfolios. 

If a member is “hot under the collar” about some aspect of the committee’s work, consider giving them time to air their thoughts, good or bad, in a meeting. 

Try a new management technique for one meeting (look up Six Thinking Hats online for one example).

Have other members chair particular meetings or parts of meetings. Cultivating others’ skills and experience builds engagement and resiliency within the committee, and also prepares for an eventual transition of chair. 

Discuss recruitment with the committee at least twice a year. Not only does this make it more likely the committee will successfully recruit when appropriate, but it helps committee members keep in view what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what they will need in the future to continue to be effective. 

Measure your results. Much of your committee’s work will be difficult to quantify, but try to measure what can be measured, even at some cost. Discovering what works is pleasant, as is following up to determine why it worked, and how to make it better. Less pleasant, but no less essential, is discovering what does not work. As chair, your responsibility is to share both kinds of data freely with the committee and to welcome the opportunity to learn from your findings. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail in Order to Succeed

If you are feeling overwhelmed and under-resourced, remember two things: planning is a force multiplier and nothing attracts support like success. You do not have to implement every idea your committee comes up with. You do have to do something, and you have to track what works, and what doesn’t, for you. If your efforts work and you can prove it, resources will follow.

There is more than one way to successfully lead a committee, and part of the process is to develop your own approach through trial and error. Many wise leaders agree that in order to succeed, you must give yourself permission to fail gloriously. By modeling this belief as a leader, you tacitly give others permission to do so as well, and they will act on behalf of your chorus with greater courage. 

John William Trotter is assistant professor of music at Chicago's Wheaton College Conservatory and works internationally as a guest conductor, consultant, and teacher. Previously, he was the associate conductor of the Vancouver Chamber Choir, as well as founder and chair of the organization’s Audience Development Committee.

This article is adapted from The Voice, Fall 2013.

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