The Executive Committee of a nonprofit board can have many different forms and functions, often depending on the size or engagement of the board. Today we’ll look at several options and their advantages. First, though, let’s look at some rather universal concepts.
The Executive Committee is generally the body that directly oversees an organization’s highest paid staff member. Hiring, compensation, performance evaluation, and firing decisions are nearly always made by this group, which then informs the board of their decisions or recommendations. Housing these sensitive personnel matters in the Executive Committee provides important perspective and check and balances for your board president, and also confines the discussion of potentially sensitive personal information to a small, trusted group of board members, as opposed to presenting these discussions in the more open setting of a full board meeting.
In addition, the Executive Committee should have a strong voice regarding the agenda of meetings of the full board. In this role, the committee should ensure all important information and items for discussion and decision are included on your board agenda at the appropriate time to meet target dates in the strategic timeline or legal/regulatory deadlines. The Executive Committee should also ensure that any matter presented to your board for decision has been fully investigated and vetted, thereby ensuring your board members have all the information they need to make a decision for the organization.
If your organization has a large board, the Executive Committee can play a very important role in communicating information to and from your organization’s leadership. In this scenario, the chairpersons of each committee of the board, along with the board’s officers, generally comprise the membership of the Executive Committee. These members take decisions about the organization’s strategic direction to the various committees, which then work to implement those decisions in more detail. The members of the Executive Committee also report on their committees’ progress, to ensure continued alignment and to prevent duplication of efforts.
For a smaller board, the Executive Committee may only include the officers of the board, who may occupy a more hands on role in assisting your Executive Director.
Whichever structure makes sense for your organization, think of your Executive Committee as the body that helps coordinate the work of the board to maximize board engagement and effectiveness.
And because the Executive Committee plays such a central and often sensitive role, I recommend all members of this committee be members of your board currently in office. We’ll look at other committees where non-board members can appropriately serve, but the Executive Committee isn’t one of them.
With these concepts in mind, let’s look at another common function of the Executive Committee. Most state laws permit the Executive Committee to act between meetings of the full board, provided their actions are reported to and ratified by the full board at its next meeting. While this power certainly allows decisions to be made quickly and permits the scheduling of less frequent meetings of the full board (which, admittedly, means less work for staff), it may also contribute to less board engagement. There is a danger that, since the Executive Committee is easier to assemble and often consists of the Executive Director’s and board president’s closest colleagues, more and more decision making will be shifted over time to the committee, instead of allowing the full board the opportunity to consider important issues and feel engaged in the work of the organization. I generally recommend that the power of the Executive Committee to act between meetings of the full board be limited to emergency situations.
The following is a sample description of the Executive Committee’s responsibilities:
Membership of the Executive Committee shall be comprised of the officers of the Corporation, the chairpersons of each of the Corporation’s standing committees, and such other individuals as may be appointed by the Chair of the Board, provided that all members of the Executive Committee shall be Directors of the Corporation currently in office. The Executive Committee will serve as the compensation committee and is responsible for hiring and determining compensation for the President of the Corporation. The Executive Committee, if necessary to meet legal deadlines or obligations or in emergency situations where action is required immediately, may have and exercise all of the authority of the Board of Directors in the management of the Corporation except as such authority is limited by the Articles of Incorporation, the Regulations, or by statute, or as may be limited by the resolution relating to the Committee. All action taken by the Executive Committee shall be reported at the next full Board meeting. The Executive Committee may act by a majority of the members of the Executive Committee at a meeting or in a writing or writings signed by all Executive Committee members.
One final comment for smaller organizations — if a board lacks sufficient members to staff all of the standing committees you might like to have, it is possible to have the Executive Committee assume the typical duties of the Board Development Committee, especially when an organization is in its formative years.