Organizations, Boards, and Committees

By: Kathryn Carroll

When we team up with other people who have the same goals or mission, we form organizations that make it easier to achieve our goals. Understanding our role in these organizations is important to our success in those roles, and the success of the organization as a whole. 

In this module, we will discuss.

  1. Executive Committees
  2. Boards of Directors
  3. some Committee roles
  4. and additional types of membership roles

Roles within Organizations

Filling a role in an organization typically requires you to be a member of the organization and demonstrate skill and/or interest in fulfilling a particular role. You may be appointed to a role,  elected to fill a role, or even directed to fill a role by the organization’s rules or bylaws. This is an opportunity for you to exercise your skills and develop your leadership capabilities. 

Executive Committees

There are certain roles we tend to expect to see in formal organizations. These roles include the President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer. The President is the chief officer of an organization usually entrusted with the direction and administration of its policies. A Vice President is next in rank to the President and is empowered to fulfill the duties of the President in the President’s absence. A Vice President is also a deputy, taking charge of particular functions as determined by the organization. A Treasurer is someone entrusted with the receipt, care, and disbursement of funds. A Secretary is someone responsible for the organization’s records and correspondence. Together, these four positions make up a typical Executive Committee and are often called officers. Executive Committees ensure that an organization’s vital functions are carried out. They may be part of a larger Committee, and may meet separately to make decisions for the organization. The Executive Committee is by necessity a standing committee, and often acts as a steering committee – setting priorities for the larger organization. 

Boards of Directors 

Boards of Directors are the governing bodies of many organizations, particularly non-profit organizations. The Board of Directors has many responsibilities, including overseeing the financial operations of the organization. The Board is also responsible for hiring, firing, and supervising the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) if there is one. The CEO in term oversees the administration of the organization. The Board is responsible for ensuring that the organization fulfills its obligations – such as partnerships, or in contracts. The Board is also ultimately responsible for making sure the organization fulfils its requirements for its tax status. 

As a director, you have the power to help decide the direction of an organization and its priorities. Furthermore, you ensure that the mission and philosophy of the organization are being maintained. There are three main duties we ascribe to directors on boards. These are 1. duty of care, 2. duty of loyalty, and 3. duty of obedience. In short, these duties mean that you must take “reasonable care”(the care an ordinarily prudent person would exercise in a similar situation) when you make decisions for the organization, that you do not use information obtained  through your position for your personal gain, that you always act in the best interests of the organization, and that you are faithful to the organization’s mission. 

In summary, a Board of Directors “is often a watchdog, a cheerleader, a manager, a planner, and a communicator, all at the same time.” Being a director can be very rewarding, but it comes with many responsibilities. 

Committee Roles

There are many types of committees out there, and the formal and informal roles within them vary. However, there are some roles you will typically see, formally or informally, in most committees. One of these roles is the chairperson. The chairperson is the person who presides over a meeting. In other words, they manage or lead the meeting. When executive officers meet in committee, the president or vice president typically assumes the chairperson role, but this does not have to be the case. Nominating or assigning others to serve as a chairperson can have many benefits. For example, others beside the President get to exercise leadership and management skills, and responsibility for running committees does not fall on one individual.  Chairpersons should be prepared to manage the agenda, manage conflict among members, and encourage participation and ensure space for diverse perspectives to be heard in the committee. 

Another role you will usually see in a committee is a secretary or note-taker. This role is very important and often underappreciated. Notes or minutes of meetings serve many purposes, and when well-written they are very useful. Minutes memorialize the activities of a committee.  Committees are often required to report on their activities to a Board to demonstrate that they are achieving goals set to advance the priorities of the Board. Good notes are also useful for reviewing the past activities of the committee, and for keeping absent members up to speed. Finally, good notes will support explaining the committee’s product – what its concrete plans are or what it has achieved. 

Additional Roles

There are many other roles you will find in organizations. We will review a few examples here. 

Ex officio member of an organization, typically of a board, is a member by virtue of their office. There are many uses and meanings for ex officio, but there is one common usage we should focus on. Sometimes, an organization’s bylaws require that government officials or corporate executives serve on the Board representing the entity they work for. Their role and expertise are seen as necessary to success of the organization.  

Advisory (board) members, like ex officio members, lend their position, influence, and expertise to an organization, typically a board of directors. In fact, an organization might create a specific advisory board to assemble individuals to provide additional support to the organization, even for a limited time.  

Probationary members are those which might be participating in an organization pending the resolution of some action. Perhaps the member has yet to fulfill all of the requirements of membership but is allowed to participate in the meantime.  

Member at-large are generally those who serve on a committee or board but do not serve as an officer as well. They are therefore available to be assigned or voted into officer position. It is beneficial to have at-large members since they are not limited to specific roles or representing specific populations. One example of this is a common model of local government  – the city council. While most of the members of a city council represent geographic districts, wards, or parishes, there are sometimes at-large members who are elected by the residents of the entire city. That way, there are individuals who can take a more expansive view of the people they serve. 

Finally, we should acknowledge that not all members are voting members. Non-voting members of organizations may feel more free to share their opinions and perspectives, but nevertheless lack the power to vote on the direction and priorities of the organization. Advisory members , for instance, may be able to share their expertise and advise a board, but leave the final decisions up to the board.  

A Note 

While this module serves as an overview of the roles you may fill as a member of an organization, remember that you should always look to the rules and bylaws governing an organization to understand the structure, what specific roles the organizations has, and what are the functions of those roles.   

All Participation is Valuable

Do not forget that being a member is itself a role. Being an officer or serving as chairperson at meetings is not required to be an active participant in an organization. Sharing your opinions and perspectives, adding your expertise to the discussion, and voting are very important activities regardless of your title within the organization.