The effective committee, task force, or work group

Committees have a reputation for wasting peoples’ valuable time. Usually the fault lies, not with the committee, but the assembly to which the committee reports. Here is how to remedy the situation. Provide useful terms of reference. [click the title if you don’t see the rest of this article…]

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This is material that I’ve been using since 1992. It pre-dates my experience with Policy Governance. If you find it useful, I’d love to hear about it. Also, if you modify or adapt it, please write to me and describe your experience (contact link below). This is copyright, and you are limited to using it with a small organization or committee. Please include my contact information on every page. You may not publish or distribute widely. Thanks.

Although this article refers to the use of an Executive Committee, this is not appropriate with a Policy Governance board.

Guidelines for Writing Committee Terms of Reference

Since boards and executives meet infrequently, the only way that an organization can achieve its goals, other than approve action and policies, is to assign tasks to individuals or to strike committees. One of the reasons that many people do not like committees is that they seem to be ineffective. This is almost always due to the members of the committee not understanding the need and purpose of the committee, or how they are expected to fulfill their responsibilities. When a committee is struck, clear terms and expectations of the assignment should be given.

There are two kinds of committees: a standing committee, and an ad hoc committee. Ad hoc committees are struck to perform a specific task, usually to be accomplished within a definite time frame. When they report, they automatically dissolve.

Standing committees may be created by the bylaws, or by the membership, or another committee, such as the executive committee, or even an individual. Over time, and after a number of different personalities occupy the chair, committees may develop an internal culture which causes the committee to drift away from its intended purpose. Changes in the community, or in the organization, may cause the old reasons for the committee’s existence to change.

In each case, it is important for those assemblies that are responsible for striking committees to ensure that their committees are carrying out the current mission of the organization and the intended assignment. This can be achieved through clear terms of reference. The logical place for the terms of reference to achieve formal recognition is to include them in the motion to commit.

Sometimes the easiest way to develop good terms of reference is to ask each committee to propose the terms to the assembly to which it reports, for approval or amendment. Nevertheless, the assembly that strikes the committee has the responsibility to hold its committees accountable for producing appropriate and useful results.

A review of the terms of standing committees should be an annual event.

In order that all of the issues facing each committee are considered, and to attempt to establish a common format, these guidelines should be considered when developing new terms of reference. This format should be freely altered to suit specific circumstances.

The striking assembly is delegating work to the committee. The authority of the committee can be only the authority that the striking assembly (or individual) has the right to delegate.

The group is called a committee because they are usually formed as a result of the high order motion ‘to commit.’ Sometimes it is more useful not to call it a committee, and to name it a work group, or a task force, or some other title. Technically it is still a committee.

Terms of reference are like a job description. They state why the job has been created, who can fill the job, the means and resources to be used to accomplish the task and the time limit for the task.

Format for committee terms of reference

Committee Name
Nothing conveys the purpose of a committee better than the name. If people are proud of their committee work, they will announce to their friends and colleagues their membership on the committee. The name should convey the importance of, and suggest the function of the committee.

This section identifies the need for the committee. It describes the intention of the assembly that struck the committee, reviews the scope of action, and acts as mission statement for the members.

The Preamble can make clear how this committee operates in relation to other committees. In some organizations, the committee structure is as complicated as the staff structure.

Precise and achievable objectives are the key to ensuring that the work of the committee will be focused on the intended tasks. The normal form is a series of bulleted statements, e.g. “• to organize and run the conference in a manner that sustains a small profit.” It is appropriate for an objective to include a sentence of explanation or clarification.

Objectives should clearly define the targets, and not be worded in poetry that will result in confusion, inaction, or inappropriate action.

Remember, this was written before I learned Policy Governance.

For Policy Governance boards, I recommend that you use the language of Ends instead of objectives when writing ToR objectives. Since your committee will be only assisting the board in its work, be sure that the committee understands what part of the board’s work requires this assistance. State the results expected of your committee (not the actions to achieve those results). Frankly, I think that this advice would work for all committee ToR, but most people would have to do some studying to understand the language.

Ad hoc committees should be task and time defined. It must be clear when each committee is expected to provide interim and final reports.

All committees should report to the assembly to which it is accountable. The timing and the nature of the content of these reports should be specified.

Authority to Act
It must be clear if the committee is to act merely in an advisory role, or if it is expected to take action to achieve its objectives.

The committee’s scope of activities is discussed in this section.

The authority of the committee can be only that which is delegated by the striking assembly.

Committees should be viewed as worthwhile because committees are very expensive in their operation, even if the resources are supplied without a charge (volunteered time, facilities, services, supplies). The time of the people sitting on committee is the greatest resource. The meeting rooms, food, office supplies, and office support, as well as any direct budgeted expenses are all part of the cost. It should be clear to the committee what resources are available to the members to carry out their work. The resources, other than those reflected in the budget, are described here.

The method by which a committee obtains a budget, approves expenditures, accounts for the budget, and reports on the use of the budget is described in this section. If there are to be no monetary resources, this section may be omitted.

A budget may include revenues as well as expenses. It should in any case where the committee is receiving funds or payment for services (such as admission fees to an event).

Committees are usually composed of members of the assembly that struck the committee. When this is the case, a motion made by the committee chair at a meeting of the assembly, and on behalf of the committee, does not require a second. (Read the Rules of Order if there is dissension on the committee and there is need for a minority report.)

This section should discuss the possible make-up of the committee. Sometimes the striking assembly chooses only the chair, who then has to find members to assist with the task. Occasionally, members of a committee are drawn from other groups of the organization, or from the community. This often strengthens the committee, and it may give these people the opportunity to distinguish themselves by providing good work to the organization, and it allows them to learn the organizational culture in preparation for higher office. In a small, short-term committee, the only officer is the chair. In others, certainly in the case of the Executive Committee, there is a full slate.

If the committee contains other than members of the striking assembly, then this section should describe the rights of these individuals to vote.

Any special qualifications of committee members are described in this section.

© 1992 Robert J. Ballantyne
All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

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