Supporting your committee members

Most people need a degree of personal satisfaction and appreciation of their involvement in the group to remain involved in a committee. Members of any group will usually welcome praise and appreciation for their efforts. Most will be volunteers and the material in the Community Door section on volunteer management may assist you in maintaining your committee.

Other ways to support and build your committee include:  

  • Providing social contact through group social activities, either before or after a meeting, or on separate occasions away from the usual meeting venue.
  • Providing news on the continued progress of the organisation through an interesting newsletter or by telephone.
  • Arranging tasks or projects which suit peoples' skills or their ability to learn.
  • Giving support for learning new roles. For example, an established committee member could be delegated to look after the new member for the first few meetings and to explain how things work and to answer any questions.

Remember, involvement generates interest and people need to feel included in the group's affairs to remain a member. If you treat people as outsiders, they will be.

Developing clear plans and procedures

The first committee of an organisation has an advantage over all later committees because there is a clear and obvious job to do. Try to plan ahead your first year's activities. Decide on your aims - who you want to reach, what you want to do, and how you want to go about doing it. In the beginning, try to pick essential and achievable things to do while you develop some experience and your organisation becomes established. Try not to work on too many things at the one time as your committee's energy could be stretched to breaking point.

Organisations often run into trouble after the end of their first or second year. Sometimes the trouble is that the organisation has developed from a concern about a problem, but its members have different ideas when developing solutions. New members may see things differently from the founding members and this can lead to disagreements. The initial enthusiasm which led to the development of the organisation wanes as members battle with the everyday reality of keeping the organisation running. A planning session can help you get a clearer idea of what you want to achieve. Chapter 7 may also be helpful to review.

Good procedures in the handover from the old to the new committee are important so that the incoming committee can benefit from the experience of the previous one. An induction process should be available to all committee members and some suggested handover procedures include:

  • Prior to the election of the new committee, prospective committee members and office bearers are given clear information on what their role involves
  • Each new office bearer should have a meeting with the previous office bearer and also receive a copy of their role description to find out important information and details about current projects
  • Set up an information session about the work of the organisation and role of the committee, attended by members of the old committee, the new committee and the workers

Controlling the misuse of authority

All management structures are open to the possibility of intentional or unintentional misuse of authority and power. For an organisation to function effectively, it is important that members (and other people involved) are aware of appropriate uses of authority so that they can identify its misuse and take steps to deal with it, as necessary.

Consider some of the ways people exert and hold power in organisations:

  • They hold onto information in order to hold knowledge others do not have. This often means that they are more likely to be listened to and agreed with.
  • People accumulate responsibility over time and start to become indispensable. They are the only people able to do certain things and therefore other people listen and follow what they have to say.
  • People assume the right to tell other people what to do. This can be attributed to the traditional power relationships in our society and has much to do with a person's "position" within the organisation. For example, the chairperson tells the coordinator what to do, the coordinator tells the staff what to do, the staff tell clients what to do, etc.
  • There are hidden power relationships such as the older person assuming the right to tell the younger one what to do, the Anglo-Australian worker telling the worker from a non-English speaking background what to do, and the one with the most experience telling others with less experience what to do.
  • People play power games. Power games may include manipulating, being bossy, being stubborn, throwing tantrums, sulking, or using emotional blackmail.
  • Without being consciously aware of it, groups sometimes develop structures and rules that maintain the existing power structure. These structures and rules are never explained to other people. New members in organisations are magically expected to understand the meeting procedures, sub-committees and hierarchy.

To mitigate some of these problems, there are ways to encourage greater participation and equality. These include:

  • Creating times, places, methods and opportunities which are specifically for the sharing of information. You could set aside time at meetings to exchange information or even have special information meetings. Another way is to develop background briefing reports on difficult issues before decisions are made. If you can develop a culture which requires written reports, then it is more difficult to retain, hide or control information.
  • Developing kits for new workers or management committee members including the history of the organisation, funding, role descriptions for staff and management committee members, aims, philosophy, policies and so on.
  • Establishing a "How To Do Things" or "Procedures" file where information on how to do things can be written down and kept. Include everything from how to do a referral, to locking the doors and windows.
  • Making information accessible and easy to read. Let everyone know where it is kept.
  • Making sure everything is recorded.  Use task sheets listing who will do what and when. Plan and use diaries for the whole organisation so that everyone knows what everyone else is doing.
  • Ensuring that positions are rotated or have a limited term of office. This could be written into your rules. Prepare people to take over in the future by giving them the opportunity to act in a "vice" or "deputy" position. These strategies assist in preventing your organisation becoming a closed system which has no new office bearers or ideas.
  • Scheduling staff training so people learn new skills. Include a requirement for training participation in people's job descriptions.
  • Delegating jobs to a sub-committee, e.g., the treasurer can work with a finance sub-committee. This helps demystify the knowledge of the "expert" and leaves less of a gap when they leave.
  • Using procedures at meetings which help people participate. Devise an agenda that everyone agrees on or regularly have a 'round robin' where everyone has a say. Don't forget that breaking into small groups shares information and helps decision making too. Whatever you decide to do, make sure everyone understands the rules and structures you decide to use.
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