Why is it, when the list of committees is passed around and board members are asked to volunteer, few it any excitedly stick up their hands to work on governance?
What in the world gave this committee such a bad rap?
I have a theory that it sounds boring, official, bogged down in process and bylaws. Although policies and best practices ARE an important part of what a governance committee works with, it’s just not fair to say the work is a drag. I, for one, find it really cool. Well, maybe “vital” is a better word…
I guess I should disclose that I was recently asked to head the governance committee for a nonprofit where I serve on the board. Just to make sure I knew what I was getting into, I spent some time researching governance. I wanted to be 100% clear on what I SHOULD be doing, not just what was USUALLY done.
First and foremost, the governance committee is all about identifying potential new committee and board members to get into the board pipeline…and, similarly, to help chart career paths for those who will take on leadership roles. Mersky, Jaffe and Associates says this work is the reason why governance “is the single most important committee of a nonprofit organization’s board.” This work takes a lot of effort, but it’s also fun, thinking about people you want to bring into the fold and finding ways to deploy their skills as they develop within their careers. It actually takes the pressure off if the committee cultivates people over time versus running around in a panic when it’s time to submit the slate.
Handling nominations and setting a course for the organization’s volunteer leadership is certainly key, but it isn’t the only thing a governance committee does. It also seeks to ensure the board experience is positive and provides mechanisms for board members both to give feedback (surveys, for example) and to learn. Some of this learning takes place in the annual board retreat, often developed in conjunction with the board chair. But other opportunities are less formal and come in the form of articles, alerts on key issues or even discussions in committee or board meetings that help educate members about best practices or remind them about policies in place.
Make no mistake, the governance committee is NOT there to police things. It’s there to help board members understand their roles, to grow in their understanding and ability to serve, and to continually capture feedback about how to improve the experience and effectiveness of the board as a body.
If identifying the new slate of officers and board members gets the most attention on governance committees, the informal learning part gets the least. Ironically, this is probably one of the most important components of a successful board experience – learning and growing alongside of peers in the community who have a shared passion for the cause you are all representing.
So, the next time that question comes up about who is going to serve on the governance committee, don’t shy away. Use it as an opportunity to voice the things you want to learn more about and a way to help make that good work happen with the organization.