The First Principles of Volunteer Non-Profit Committees

I’ve been on several committees at the museum. Unfortunately, the last one turned into a disaster. Committees at non-profits are almost always volunteer and therefore very different from corporate committees–and often more frustrating. You don’t want to scare anyone away from the organization, but you also don’t want to listen to idiots ramble through entire meetings.  I’ve decided that I’ve accumulated enough experience and advice that I can offer:

The First Principles of Committees (at least at non-profits):

1.) A Committee is NOT a Democracy!

Want a little sip of hell? Take a few sometimes-volunteers who “just want to get involved” in some event, put them in a room once a month, and give them each an equal vote in the planning process. It’s not just that you’ll be doing all the work (oh, you will); you’ll also have to sit and listen to two graphic designers duke it out among themselves for a half hour about the best font to use on the event flyer–and this before you even have an event to flyer about. You’ll have to listen to every Tom, Dick, and Harry’s little objections and dumb ideas and smile and pretend you like them: “Hey, let’s set up a booth at this random store by my house to promote our event to their five daily customers–it’ll be great! Staff? Well, someone will be available that day. Me? No, I’ll be on a vacation. But you’ll be around, won’t you?”

Remember those people in school who would raise their hand just to babble and sound smart, and instead of ringing the bullshit gong on them (a wonderful Harvard Business School invention), the teacher would nod vigorously at them to validate their special comments to raise their self esteem? No? You’re about to.

2.) Everyone on the Committee Should be There for a Specific Purpose.

Everyone hates committees, because they suck. So if you’re going to do the committee thing, you have to have a very good reason to do it that way. There’s only one justification for having a committee: You have a job that requires different areas of expertise, and the committee is a forum for bringing those experts together. Their jobs should NEVER overlap, and one person only gets a public say in another person’s work if it deals with their own area of expertise.

Example of Good Committee: Chairperson, Person A, Person B, and Person C. Person A is a graphic designer. She will handle ALL flyers, promotional materials, photos, etc., or will contract outsiders to do those things. Person B is a lawyer. He will handle ALL the legal paperwork for the event. Person C is a caterer. She will handle ALL the food contracting for the event. Let’s say that, during the committee meeting, Person B finds Person A’s designs terrible. Person B does NOT get to express this in the meeting. He emails the chairperson outside of the meeting, and the chairperson mediates between Mr. B and Ms. A. Committee meetings are to be used ONLY for summarizing work and expressing expertise. If, for example Mr. B had a question about whether the logo Ms. A used for the contract header was copyrighted, he’d be allowed to ask that because it’s in his expertise area.

Example of a Bad Committee (based on a true story, hint hint):

Chairperson: G.A., has never run a committee before but is very intelligent and capable. Is somewhat new to the organzation.

Person A: A blue collar worker who also does graphic design in her free time.

Person B: A mother of three who fancies herself a graphic designer but is terrible at it.

Person C: A just-graduated college student with an Anthropology major who expressed initial interest in the event but rarely says anything.

Person D: An amateur photographer desperately trying to launch his own online photography business and planning to use this event as a launch pad.

Person E: A very intelligent Latino man with almost no English skills and a tendency to ramble on and on about tangential things.

Okay, chess players, can we guess how this turned out? A and B “worked together” on a logo, the end result of which incorporated almost none of the more-sheepish A’s designs and all of B’s ugly designs. C did nothing she said she would. D spent most of the meetings trying to get the committee to promote the event at a big photography event that he was going to be at. E probably had the most focus of anyone on the committee but had trouble communicating coherently, directly, and in English. Chairperson became so frustrated with the whole mess that she almost left the organization. And the event came very close to being cancelled.

3.) Finally, the most important: Before You Form a Committee, Ask Yourself If You Really Need To.

Is the answer no? Then don’t do it. Often events are better planned by just one or two people rather than an amorphous group. You’ll be doing all the work yourself, yes, but at least you’ll have total control. And for me, at least, that’s worth it.

After the disaster that was the last committee, the chairperson and I talked about what we would do differently, and concluded that we’d have simply run the event ourselves and called in specific people to do specific jobs as needed. So, for example, Person A didn’t need to haul her butt to the Museum once a month for some pointless meeting–the chairperson and I would just email her when we needed the flyer. And so on.

Before I conclude the First Principles, though, I need to mention one more VERY important point for all you extroverts out there:

5.) NEVER, EVER pressure people to make “cold calls” who don’t want to or aren’t suited for it.

Most of the time, these people won’t do it anyway and if they try, it will endanger their emotional state and probably the entire organization. Everyone should be working within their comfort zones, especially considering that they’re all volunteers. If you desperately need marketing or networking people, the way to get them isn’t to forcibly convert the writers, lawyers, or designers on your team into part-time salesmen; it’s to get out there and find a volunteer with marketing experience.

I’ve seen committees break up because the one extrovert on the committee became frustrated with everyone else who wouldn’t attend functions or make phone calls with them. That’s not the introverts’ faults; it’s the fault, really, of the chairperson who needs to get a more diverse skill-set on the committee. In the corporate world, everyone is on a committee to do their professional duties. With volunteers, nobody should be forced to do things they aren’t comfortable with. It’s not only morally wrong, it’s also bad for the long-term health of organizations who depend on happy volunteers.

Running a committee of volunteers is never easy, but if you at least try to follow these simple rules, things don’t have to end in disaster like it did at my little museum.


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