Don’t Use Committees Until You’ve Read This

Sending a motion or idea to a committee can be code for “We don’t feel like dealing with this right now” or “Here’s a great way to make sure we never take any action on that topic.”

But Robert’s Rules says that committees are also a great timesaver for your meetings. Committees allow a smaller group to research a topic and make recommendations rather than taking what seems like an eternity during a whole-group meeting to discuss all the angles and options related to a certain topic.

One important detail, though: Using committees well means understanding their purpose, their structure, and the extent of their decision-making authority.

What is a committee?

You might be thinking – a committee is a group of people that feel important but don’t really do anything. And yes, sometimes that is definitely true. But on more of a textbook level, Robert’s Rules outlines the following characteristics of a committee:

  • A committee is more than one person but not the entire membership of the group.
  • A committee is a group tasked with looking into and sometimes making decisions about a specific topic.
  • A committee can give more attention to that designated topic because of the size and scope of the group.

What is a standing committee vs. a special committee?

If you’ve participated in any type of organization for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the terms standing committee and special committee.  Here’s what we’re talking about with those terms:

  • A standing committee is a committee that’s listed in the bylaws or created by a special rule. And a standing committee exists for as long as the organization exists or until the bylaws change. Think, the Finance Committee, or the Nominating Committee, or the Governance Committee – small groups within the organization that are always a thing.
  • A special committee is different. It’s a committee that’s created for a specific purpose. And it is dissolved once it has fulfilled its purpose. This could be, for example, a committee related to a specific event or perhaps a capital campaign.

How much power do committees have?

In general, a committee has power to research and recommend, but it doesn’t have authority to take action on behalf of the group. If you want a committee to have power to actually take action for the group, that authority should be made clear when the committee is appointed. Often, the Executive Committee is given such power.

You can read more here on how to handle committee reports.

How often should committees meet?

Robert’s Rules says that committees meet at the call of the committee chairman. And if the chairman never calls a meeting, the committee can meet at the call of two committee members.  Alternatively, the bylaws or the resolution that creates the committee can specify meeting intervals.

What is a quorum for a committee?

A quorum for a committee is a majority of the members of that committee – unless, of course, your organization’s rules say it’s something different.

What type of vote is needed for a committee to take or recommend action?

Committees need a majority of the votes cast to take an action that it has the power to take on its own, or to make a recommendation for action to the larger group.

So, now you know. There’s no need to shy from using from committees, or for committees to be that place where topics go to die. Use the above as a guide for how, when, and why. You might just be surprised at how much committees can accomplish!