Many boards believe they need to improve their committees in some way. Some board members lament that they just listen to reports. Others think that most committees other than finance are of little consequence. Few have accomplished meaningful reform.
To improve committees, boards must focus first on their overall fiduciary responsibilities and how they shape committees. As emphasized in AGB’s report “Consequential Boards: Adding Value Where It Matters Most,” governing boards too often neglect or narrowly conceive their fiduciary roles.
Refocusing board work on the most significant fiduciary issues and redesigning committee practice to concentrate on matters of greatest import for the institution will rejuvenate committees.
First, organize committees around their primary fiduciary responsibilities rather than administrative structures. Every committee will then have important work to do because it will be doing the board’s work, not management’s. Creating committees around strategic objectives or long-term board responsibilities such as sustainability or mission effectiveness centers their work on big issues of institutional direction and success.
Second, build committee agendas around a set of questions about the institution’s future risks and opportunities rather than rehashing past or current realities, which can be digested from written reports. A committee on sustainability might explore what a decline in first-year enrollment means for the vitality of the institution or debate the most promising enrollment and revenue scenarios for repositioning.
Such approaches will ensure that all committee work is interesting, meaningful, and genuinely consequential. That will be more satisfying for members, and board committees will also become more effective in strengthening their institutions.