A Camel or a Horse – the Role of an Advisory Committee

I often start my training courses on effective committee meetings with the picture of a camel. The old proverb a camel is a horse designed by committee can apply to any number of committee meetings both in the voluntary and other sectors, where there is confusion about the purpose of the committee.

Advisory committees are certainly a useful tool to share the work of the board of trustees, and are common in the areas of finance, HR and governance. As the name implies the committee is there to provide advice.

A key question to ask about any possible advisory committee is whether or not it has an ongoing role eg finance, or whether the job is a specific piece of work with an end date. If the latter then it could be better tackled by a task and finish group, which completes its purpose and is then disbanded. Task and finish groups might deal with trustee recruitment as and when required; a governance healthcheck; or an investigation into a possible merger with another charity.

As small charities grow there is a tendency to set up advisory committees in an adhoc way and it can be beneficial to review the role of committees to see whether they are still fulfilling their original purpose. An organisation chart showing the board of trustees, the interrelationship between the various committees and a summary of each committee’s purpose, can be a useful way of seeing this information in a visual format.

When setting up a new committee it’s Terms of Reference (ToR) are an essential document. Key questions to consider are:

Purpose – why should the committee exist? This is a summary statement to describe the overall purpose of the committee. A finance committee might say that its remit is to provide the board with financial oversight on all key aspects of the charity’s activities.

Powers – what are the powers of the committee ie can it make decisions independently? If its role is to put forward ideas and recommendations to the board of trustees, then it is helpful to include the term advisory in the committee’s title.

Responsibilities – what are the specific duties of the committee? These could be itemised in a similar way to the duties on a job description.

Membership – who should be members of the committee? If it is an advisory committee then it might be useful in addition to trustees, to appoint staff and volunteers as members where they have relevant knowledge. This can also help to foster a productive working relationship between trustees and staff/volunteers.

Appointment – how are members appointed to the committee? Often this can simply be by approval from the board of trustees. Do make sure potential members have agreed to be put forward for this role!

Quorum – how many members need to be present for it to be a valid meeting? This is not a legal requirement (unlike the quorum for a board of trustees which will be stated in the charity’s governing document) but it makes sense to have a quorum of no less than two or three members.

Frequency of meetings – how often should the committee meet? The responsibilities of the committee will help the members to decide the number of meetings required to carry out its work. Virtual meetings ie via video chat, may be an option rather than having an actual face to face meeting, especially if members are located in different geographical areas.

I’ve recently been involved in a review of a charity’s advisory committees, so do get in touch if this type of support would be useful to your charity.

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