I am not a fan of too many board committees. I find that when board members spend hour after hour in committee meetings, they are less likely to have the time to spend reaching into the community, prospecting for new donors, finding new board members and serving as passionate ambassadors for the organization.
But I do believe that a strong Executive Committee is a true asset for every arts organization and an important ally for arts managers.
The Executive Committee should be empowered to act in place of the full board for all but the most important decisions. While full board approval must be sought for the annual budget, the strategic plan and major investments, there are numerous other matters that do not necessarily require full board attention and can be handled efficiently at the Executive Committee.
But the Executive Committee is also a body that can deliberate on sensitive issues that might not be easily reviewed by a full board. Personnel changes, salary levels, legal matters, etc. are each areas that are often too sensitive to broadcast in front of a large group of board members (and often staff as well).
The Executive Committee is also a place to "try out" ideas without subjecting them to full board scrutiny. Discussions about board dues, new programming ideas, even new trustees, can help the arts manager discern how the full board may react to a new idea. This allows us to understand the potential issues we may face as we seek approval from the full board and to determine who our allies are as we move forward.
Some organizations, in order to economize on the time Executive Committee members must spend at meetings, hold Committee sessions adjacent to board meetings. This may be time-efficient, but it doesn't maximize the effectiveness of the Committee. The Executive Committee should meet in months when the board doesn't meet. This ensures that the staff leadership has access to a decision-making body more frequently; this, in turn, allows the organization to move forcefully ahead rather than have to wait for a board vote. Allowing some time between Executive Committee meetings and board meetings also allows the manager time to continue discussions on highly charged issues before the full board must vote.
Because of its important role, the selection of board members to sit on the Executive Committee must be made with care. We need the most involved, mature and thoughtful members on our Executive Committee; this ensures that we get a smart hearing, well-considered feedback and confidentiality on sensitive topics. It is helpful to have chairs of key committees on the Executive Committee as well so that major functional strategies can be aligned.
Placement on the Executive Committee can also be a reward for board members who are particularly generous with resources and time. But the Committee should not simply include the biggest donors; it must also include those who can govern best.
In my experience, the most successful boards have the most thoughtful, engaged and productive Executive Committees.