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From herding cats to busy bees: Effective committee management

“Another committee?!” Ever hear that? Committees can be plagued with problems: lack of focus, talking without doing anything, or meetings that waste time. They must be well managed in order to be an effective, as well as fun, way to get work done.

Here are a few types of committees:

  • Staff committees
  • Volunteer committees
  • Volunteer committees with staff support (i.e. a small number of staff attends and participates in meetings)

Committees may be ongoing, like a finance committee, or have a defined shelf life, like an event planning task force.

My experience includes being staff coordinator for a lot of committees, as well as being a member and chair of various volunteer committees (with or without staff support). I’m also the 2014 chair of YNPN-TC’s programming committee, which plans all our great events and programs! (Sign up here for more info on volunteering!) In my experience, the goal of managing a committee is to empower its members to feel ownership and responsibility so they will work together to take action.

With this goal in mind, here are some things you can focus on to help your committee run more effectively:

Defined purpose

People need to know their committee’s goals. Are you determining strategy or executing it? What milestones will show progress toward goals? Is there a workplan or calendar for the year?

Good communications

This the bedrock of good committee work and the job of the chair, with staff support if applicable.

  • Provide a roster with contact information so committee members can get in touch.
  • Check in regularly with sub-committees. Know their timelines and see if they’re on schedule. Lend support if they are struggling.
  • Make it easy to access tools. Be clear how agendas, minutes, and other information are distributed. Share things like policies and procedures in an online space or in an orientation binder.

Healthy group dynamics

  • Social time: With volunteers, allow some mingling time in the meeting – perhaps 15 minutes at the start or end. People often join committees to meet people and feel a sense of belonging, so create opportunities for relationships to develop. Even at staff committees, have an icebreaker to allow people to learn about each other. During the meeting, break people into small groups to allow for deeper connections.
  • Celebrate: Recognizing the group’s accomplishments builds morale and shared pride. It’s also important to recognize the contributions of individual members. Try to give a shout-out at each meeting to those who have recently managed a project or helped out in a particular way. As a group, take time periodically to celebrate: perhaps with a happy hour or special treats when a big event is finished or a milestone is met.
  • Respect is always critical to getting along as a group. Establish respect as a basic expectation. If it becomes apparent that this is being violated, you’ll need to explore ways to get the committee back on track.

Engaged committee members

Engagement is especially key with volunteer committees, where people will pull back on their involvement if they don’t feel they are contributing.

  • Personal attention: People want to contribute in a way suited to their talents and interests. The best way to learn about these is through personal conversation. It’s very effective when the chair meets with individual committee members, perhaps for an orientation or a periodic check-in. Ask open-ended questions and press a little to learn what appeals to your committee member and suggest opportunities that might fit. I was once thinking of leaving my YNPN-TC committee until the chair had coffee with me and gave me a fun project to lead.
  • Pipeline: Volunteers cycle on and off committees as their lives and availability change. Keep an eye on volunteer recruitment, retentionand development – even if you’re not the chair. Let people know about your committee and how great it is, and follow up when people seem interested. When you notice that someone looks interested in a particular project, talk to her or the chair about it. Committee members who take on more leadership are your best bet for future chairs.
  • Food: Although cliché, people love to be fed, and food and drink go a long way toward making them feel welcome and at ease.

Hopefully some of these tips will help your committee feel less like herding cats and more like a well-organized hive of busy bees. For more tips on staffing volunteer committees, here’s another great article.

Any advice on managing committees, as a leader or participant?

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