Forming and Supporting Effective Volunteer Committees
Contributed By Debbie Anderson
For many volunteers, especially the ones with the most experience and dedication, past experience with committees have not been positive or productive experiences. I suppose that’s why so many organizations have opted to use the term “team” over committee. But really, it’s the same clown in a different costume.
That said, we still need committees to do important work for our organizations. We all know that three heads are better than one, and when we need to think creatively, or tap many people for resources, a group is more likely to achieve success than individuals. The following offers some modus operandi to ensure victory, from recruitment through to the committee’s dissolve.
Clear Purpose: Communicate the motive to potential recruits. Any purpose can be interesting depending on your ability to “sell.” Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn. When selling the idea of participating in a committee, sell the outcomes. Sell what skills/abilities/experience the potential recruit has that are critical to the success of the group.
Defined Commitment: Committees are NOT intended to be life-long commitments. If the purpose of the committee does not provide for a natural conclusion then a succession plan needs to be in place to give prospective members the comfort that there is an end in sight.
Communicate this end right from the start. Also communicate the time required. Many people assume that being on a committee requires many meetings, when in fact many meet only once a month. Calculate the time required for each meeting as well as a fair estimate of the time it will take for each member to complete work outside of meetings. People are more likely to make a commitment of 10 hours a month than the amount of time they imagine could be involved.
The Initial Meeting: organized and full of work, but not work on the committee’s purpose. This is a unique time where members get to know one another, talents and strengths are discussed, roles and responsibilities are assigned, and ground rules are developed. Ground rules are key!
The group should participate in developing ground rules so they have ownership of them. Come prepared to share your own expectations about how the group will cooperate and work together. Some rules to consider are:
Everyone involved has value to add and will participate in discussions, work and decision making. This addresses the concerns of committees of yesterday where one or two volunteers were responsible for most of the work and someone else made all the decisions!
Appoint a time keeper and a communication custodian (the person who ensures equal participation).
Meetings will not be held without purpose. Planning a year’s schedule of meeting dates is not effective if there is not meaningful work to do at each meeting.
Every idea has potential and we will explore every idea.
We will attempt to gain committee consensus on every decision by…. (voting is a last resort).
Establish a buddy system that ensures members who miss meetings are informed of what they missed, support is available to individuals in accomplishing their tasks, reports can be given even if a member is unable to attend, etc.
Every meeting will have an agenda (distributed no less than xx before a meeting), minutes (distributed no later than xx following a meeting), and a recap of what worked well and what didn’t during the process of the meeting.
You are responsible for your work, and to meet the deadlines. If you think the deadline is not achievable say so before the deadline. If you need help to make a deadline, reach out to your peers.
Remember, this is your best chance at establishing expectations – use the opportunity to your advantage.
Assigning Tasks: When looking for members to accept work, ask for volunteers. If no one volunteers, identify the person in the room with the most expertise in the area (make sure it’s not the same person asked to do most of the work) and indicate why he/she is a good fit for the task and confirm that support will be provided. Ask him/her to think about it and contact them in a day or two to secure their commitment.
Meeting Management: Start each meeting with a 10 minute “meet & greet.” This facilitates everyone being on location to start the meeting on time. An added bonus is the social time for those who want that, or always arrive early.
Stick to the agenda and share meeting responsibilities such as minute taker, time keeper, communication custodian. Try to keep reports to a minimum and use brainstorming and other facilitative techniques to keep interest, guarantee involvement and best utilize the time you have together. Start on time and always end on time. End each meeting with “good of the team.” This is a quick recap what worked well during the meeting and what we can improve for next time. Don’t expect a lot of feedback the first few times you try this as it’s unknown and uncomfortable. Members need time to understand that you really do want the meetings to work for them and that it’s “ok” to give both positive and constructive feedback.
Take a group pulse: At scheduled times throughout the term, have committee members complete an evaluation of the committee and of their own individual performance. Add time to the following agenda to discuss the evaluation of the committee (not individuals) and brainstorm ways to improve any negatives. Then implement them! This is the trap door before the pedestal of evaluation; if you ask for feedback, expect it and then do something with it!
Have Fun: Take time to socialize. Members need to be comfortable with one another in order to be productive. The “meet & greet,” mid-meeting refreshment breaks, laughing together or a social outing with the committee will all boost group energy, synergy and output.
Use technology: An online chat group or regular emails will enhance the work of the group by ensuring consistent communication as well as a way to check progress. Some people find it easier to ask for or accept help on line as well.
Celebrate! This is key to getting these volunteers to commit to another committee! We don’t celebrate successes nearly enough. I recall a horrible fundraising committee experience: Our purpose was to raise $30,000 for AIDS back when AIDS was a dirty word. We raised $21,000. At the wrap-up meeting, the discussion revolved around the nine grand that we didn’t raise rather than celebrating the money we did raise, the barriers we barged through, and the value of the awareness and education we provided to the community. At the end of that meeting, they passed around a paper asking who would like to be involved in next year’s event. I’m sure you’re not surprised to note that no one signed up. Recognize the accomplishments of individuals and of the group as a whole. Focus on contributions, growth and how each helped the team’s process. Doing so will enable members to reflect positively on the entire experience which is a definite selling feature the next time you need to form anther committee!