Committee meetings are a fact of organizational life, yet often waste members' time and patience. Here are 10 ideas that apply a volunteer management perspective to making such teams work.
#1: Make sure you really need a committee.
If the work required only needs two or three efficient people, don't form a "committee." Designate a dynamic duo or terrific trio to work out the tasks themselves - no chairperson needed, either. If you do need a larger work group, consider dropping the label "committee" in favor of terms such as "task force" or "action team." It's amazing how changing the name can change attitudes.
#2: It's better to live with a vacancy for a while than to put the wrong volunteer into a key position.
Screen candidates to assure that your committee has the skills it needs. Don't negotiate away critical responsibilities in order to recruit someone (especially such things as attendance at meetings) or you will get less participation than you need.
#3: Interrelationships are critical to success (or failure) of volunteer projects.
Make sure committee members get to know one another and what each brings to the table. Use tools like meeting minutes that record who agreed to do what, by when, to keep everyone informed about work in progress. Clarify what the role of any paid staff liaison might be in relation to the volunteer committee. Equal partner? Clerical support? Who has veto power?
#4: Concentrate on good followership as well as on good leadership.
Define in writing what the goals of each committee are and write a position description for all committee members. After you've defined what each member will do, then develop the description for the chairperson or other officers. Train everyone to initiate discussion or action and not wait for all ideas to come from the chair.
#5: Burnout of valued volunteers is the inevitable result of going back again and again to the same people.
Develop and enforce a rotation policy for committee membership and leadership. Take some risks in recruiting members who may be new and untried. Allow experienced people to consult with a committee in short-term, specific ways without having to serve on the committee and attend every meeting.
#6: Be sure you are truly welcoming to newcomers.
Are new committee members brought on board in a friendly and helpful way? Consciously orient newcomers, both with a solid set of historical materials and with an explanation of how the committee works internally.
#7: Applaud steps on the way to goals.
Don't hold recognition only for the end of a project. Thank people for their efforts as they move through the process. Be aware of low points in enthusiasm and do things that regenerate interest. Even something as simple as applause for an accomplishment can lift spirits.
#8: Support volunteers who are doing good work.
Mutually agree upon expectations and methods of reporting at the very start - and don't allow absence from a meeting to mean a member doesn't have to report. Deal with poor performance as it reveals itself rather than waiting until it has become a problem pattern of behavior. Which is a key way to make every volunteer who is doing the work right feel supported and recognized.
#9: Make the most of your written communication, especially e-mail.
Give committee members a fighting chance to read - and act on - your mailings: highlight, use boxes, humor, color. Send shorter messages more often and use e-mail subject bars to assist volunteers in separating FYI messages from items that need a quick response.
#10: Document procedures so that they can be passed on to successors.
In addition to committee minutes, it is equally important to keep track of policies made or changed, procedures implemented, sample forms developed, and other tools that will be useful to those who serve in later years. Schedule a transition meeting between incoming and outgoing chairs.
If your organization has many committees, consider holding a chairperson's institute and training everyone to implement tips such as these. You can foster a consistent approach to group work that helps everyone to get more done and treat one another better while doing it.