2. Who are the committee members?

Who governs?

Regardless of what they call themselves or their committee/body, the governors are the group of people who comprise the ultimate decision making body. They must have a right to sit on this body/committee and must be eligible to vote on its decisions. There are many names for the individuals and the committee but if you are a charity then the preferred terms are ‘trustee’ and ‘board of trustees’. Unregistered voluntary organisations often use ‘management committee member’ and ‘management committee’.

Why does the committee’s role seem unclear?

This area of life is beset with language problems which generate endless confusion. The two main areas of confusion are in the naming of the committee members especially in relation to staff and because the different sectors (public, private and voluntary) name and define things differently. (See more here at What are the members of the committee called?).

The second area of confusion is the language used to describe the role. For instance the committee’s main role is to decide what the organisations is trying to achieve. This can be expressed in many ways, such as

  • Set the direction
  • Choose the priorities
  • Safeguard the vision
  • Determine the mission
  • Map out the aims
  • Set the objectives

These are all essentially saying the same thing but in language that may be more familiar or more comfortable for a particular group of individuals. (See more here at ‘I’ve been given a list of duties that includes things like ‘Determine the mission’ and ‘guard the values’.’ Using appropriate vocabulary and understanding what others truly mean is the key to overcoming governance difficulties and misunderstandings within and between committees.

Who are the committee? It isn’t clear to me in my organisation as a broad range of people seem to take part in decision making.

First identify the ‘top’ committee:

Determine if this is the ‘top’ committee, i.e. the highest decision making body. Ask yourself is there anywhere higher to refer decisions to? The buck stops with the committee.

Secondly, identify the legitimate members of this committee;

The simple test if someone is on the ‘top’ committee (whatever you call it – management committee, executive committee, board of trustees etc) is “Do they take part in the decision making on this committee?” In other words, do they take a full part in the discussions and subsequent decision making – could they vote on a decision if it were put to a vote?

But if I apply this test to my group it includes people who are emphatic that they are not members of the management committee.

Membership of the top committee is determined by function not title, in other words it’s what you do not what you’re called that counts. Just as you can’t have children then refuse to acknowledge parental responsibility because you don’t want to be called a ‘parent’, so you can’t sit on the top decision making body and refuse to acknowledge your role just because you don’t want to be called management committee member or trustee (or whatever title is used in your organisation). This is a very important point that is often misunderstood.

We have committee members with different names. Some are called management committee members and three of them maintain that they are the trustees. Can this right?

You must read your constitution carefully to unravel this one. It is possible that, for instance, a trust may have a small group of trustees (possibly appointed for life) who are the legal trustees. They may rarely meet alone but rather may meet with a broader group called collectively the ‘management committee’. This arrangement may be specified in the constitution but more often the situation evolves over time. This arrangement is a double edged sword; you will gain the contribution of a wider group on the committee but may well blur who is ultimately in control. You may well end up with a group who are the trustees on paper and others who are de facto trustees by virtue of the role they are playing. This situation often comes to a head when a very important decision needs to be made and an argument begins about who has the ultimate right to make that decision.

Next FAQ : What is the role of the committee?
Previous FAQ : What is Governance?

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A Word About Words

This site is aimed at those who govern (control) small organisations - whether they are charities, companies, both or neither. Those who govern them may be called a variety of names. We have chosen to use mainly 'management committee' and occasionally 'committee member' or 'trustee'. more...
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