Committees that Work

board governance strategic thinking Dec 01, 2021

I’ve recently had several conversations with heads of schools that centered on the work of board committees. Actually, the conversations were about how the committees were not working well. Heads of schools were frustrated that committee members were not meeting regularly and/or not producing anything relevant to the overall board’s work. Given that governing boards play a critical role in ensuring the long-term sustainability of an independent school, they need to be as efficient and productive as possible. Effectively utilizing committees is critical. 

Board committees flounder when they don’t have clear charges that support the strategic goals of the school and when they don’t recognize that their responsibility is to prepare the whole board for its strategic and generative work. Committees provide a forum for small groups of people to think flexibly, hear all voices and viewpoints, and lay the groundwork for strategic thinking at the whole board level. Committee work provides the advance pre-thinking, research, and considered options that the board can use to make final decisions. The boards that effectively utilize committees to do this work are the ones that are able to most efficiently and strategically make decisions to support their schools.

Here are 6 guidelines for facilitating effective committees:

    1. Ensure that your bylaws establish the right committees for your school; those that forward the mission and strategic goals. There are only a few recommended “standing” board committees- Finance, Committee on Trustees (or Governance), and Head Evaluation & Support Committee, as well as others that may be needed such as Audit and Investment committees. Committees such as Advancement, Marketing, Buildings & Grounds, etc. that deal with operational issues may also be needed on small school boards to accomplish work that school staff does not have the capacity to complete. Many boards also have a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging committee to help ensure that the work and culture of the board are inclusive and support a sense of belonging for all members. Then there are ad hoc or task-force committees that can be established for short periods of time such as a Strategic Planning Committee or a Bylaws Review Committee. Boards need to carefully consider what committees are needed to accomplish their work for the school at any given time. Having too many committees that are not focused and productive drains resources and energy. 
    2. Ensure that you have the right people on each committee. Do you have the diversity of experience, skills, and perspectives needed to do each committee’s work? Are the “right people on the bus" and in the right seats? Some boards invite non-board members to join committees to add needed skills and perspectives (which is also a good strategy for cultivating new board members).
    3. Ensure that each year, each committee has a clear charge and articulated, specific, annual goals. It is important that each committee’s charge focuses on the long-term, strategic needs of the school. Committees need to understand and articulate why they are meeting and what they plan to accomplish. Setting goals and priorities for each committee is an annual activity that should follow the whole board’s setting of annual goals. 
    4. Ensure that the Chair of each committee is committed to facilitating regular meetings. When and how do committees meet? Can you utilize technology to enable more members to participate? Ensuring that there are engaged, committed committee members will ensure the committee work is accomplished.
    5. Ensure that there are established and consistent practices for committees to share their work with the board as a whole. Developing standard forms for committee reports that effectively and concisely convey the needed information as well as timelines for submission will enable the entire board to understand each committee’s work and be prepared to make decisions in board meetings. Furthermore, each committee has a role in shaping the whole board’s meeting agendas. Establishing practices for enabling committees to contribute to the board agenda with reports, activities, questions, etc. will support the board’s overall strategic work.
    6. Ensure that there are methods for regularly evaluating the work and the goal achievement of each committee. If there are no specific, objective outcomes that can be attributed to committee work, then the committee is not effective. Ensure that as part of your overall board evaluation process, you are measuring your committee’s effectiveness on a regular basis.  


Board committees are critical to the effective governance of independent schools, and yet there is often little attention paid to their structure and success. The nature of governing schools requires board members to accomplish a lot! Effectively utilizing committees will help.

Brooke Carroll, Ph.D. is the author of the upcoming book: Governing the Small School: Strategies for Boards which will be released in early 2022.

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