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How To Set Up A Committee, The Official Way

This page is about how to set up a committee - the very particular, official type of member group that exists to serve i3 in some capacity.  (Note: You can make a group to serve your own needs any way and time you want to - knock yourself out.  Committees are only for groups which serve the space as a whole and are held accountable to their stated purpose.)

To form a committee:

  1. Contact the board of directors and let them know that you want to start a committee.
  2. Send the board of directors the new committee's mission statement.  Specify whether the committee is an ad hoc or standing committee.  Ad hoc committees exist to serve a specific, time-bound responsibility (such as obtain 501(c)3 status); once the mission statement is satisfied, the committee dissolves automatically after submitting its final report to the board of directors.  Standing committees, by contrast, exist to serve their mission statement indefinitely (such as beautification) and will be considered to exist until they are explicitly dissolved (see below).  At its next opportunity, the board will vote to create the committee officially.
  3. Solicit the group for volunteers.
  4. Once the committee has 'enough' members (according to your judgment), provide the board of directors with the information outlined in the section below.

Responsibilities of the committee to the board and members:

  1. To define a clear purpose for the committee (the mission statement)
  2. To define specific, achievable, and deadline-bound goals in accordance with the mission statement
  3. To faithfully satisfy those specific, achievable goals according to the committee's ability, and to redefine goals appropriately as circumstances change
  4. To keep the board informed of the committee's scheduled meeting dates so that the board can provide the information to the group at large.  (Hint: the committee should always have a "next meeting date" on the calendar.)
  5. To keep the board informed of the committee's progress toward achieving its stated goals.  These updates are to be provided at least once a month during 1st and 3rd Tuesday meetings.
  6. To provide at least one email address to be published as the committee's point(s) of contact, so that questions for the committee may be freely asked and quickly answered.
  7. If the committee desires, to set up 'house rules,' records, and documented processes as the committee sees fit - but to have the fewest rules, the most direct record-keeping, and the simplest processes possible to successfully conduct the committee's business.

... Reading between the lines: Make a promise to do something and keep it.  If you can't keep it, change course to the next most feasible alternative; always have a plan and keep moving.  Do not get tied up with bureaucracy, process-for-process sake, or get lethargic.  The board of directors wants to see you succeed and will gladly remind you of it.

To dissolve a committee:

  1. Notify the board of directors that the committee, which you are currently head of, is dissolving.
  2. Provide the board of directors with any records, documents, and processes held by the committee.

Why Committees?

"Committee" is an unfortunate word for a group of people who serve a vital organizational function.  Apart from an unfortunate name, committees, as we conventionally understand them, are not run well.  Most of us have seen committees done badly - in these settings, committees are time-vampires that drain your life away, hour by hour, with meetings, led by people content to talk instead of act.  These committees make it possible for indecisive or completely uninterested people to delay problem-solving action.  It's no surprise, then, that hackers and makers are almost unanimously anti-meeting, Do-ocratic individualists.  This post is not to defend the failed kinds of committees that we have rightly learned to despise, but to promote a healthy, brief, action-enabling type of group - something you may not recognize as a committee at all.

Committees To Iso'late Debate 'While Including Everyone in Decisions

To dispose of group discussion entirely is to throw the baby out with the bathwater - not all, but some crucial decisions should be made by the group.  (How do we divide our space's square feet, what is the policy for member storage, how much should our dues be, etc.)  On the other hand it is impractical and undesirable to have the entire population particiate in a debate.  Not everyone cares about an issue, no matter how debatable it is.

Committees, then, allow small groups to pursue well-reasoned solutions to critical issues and present recommendations to the larger group.  This lets the whole population participate in the decision-making process without forcing them to participate in the debate.  The passionate individualists thus shape the debate; the less-interested are able to vote; and the uninterested don't have to participate at all.  No one is excluded.  The only difficulty is in asking the passionate individualists to stoop so low as to serve their fellows by delaying their action briefly and obtain the group's buy-in.  Running an organization is not the same as running your home; a degree of consensus, on the most important issues, is vital.

Committees To Maintain Institutional Knowledge

An organization the size of i3 has many moving parts.  We have a lease, insurance, city inspections, member forms, waivers, floor plans, and many other purely informational properties.  Unless you are the person who signed the lease, got the insurance policy, called the inspector, designed the member form, collected the waiver, or laid out the floor plan, you will have no idea how to answer questions about any of these things.  You won't have any guidance about past decisions on these subjects.  Life was easy for your predecessor who made the decisions before leaving, and now you have to get your shovel and pray you'll turn up the right facts.

Committees make it possible to maintain knowledge that otherwise gets lost.  By sharing it via documentation or simple training, i3 can retain institutional knowledge.  When this happens, the knowledge of how to run the organization does not belong to individuals; it belongs to members of the committee, which is an extension of the group.  The original knowledge-holder can be hit by a bus or move out of state without affecting i3's ability to do business.  This is essential to our long-term survival, no matter how resilient an anti-documentation individualist you happen to be.

Committees To Drive Action

The perverted and failed type of committee we're familiar with is the anathema of action.  Most people have a very fuzzy idea of what they're doing on planet Earth and it comes through in their fuzzy way of accomplishing little with their time.  Committees make us painfully aware of the consequences of an ill-defined purpose - nothing gets done.

and executing it.  Period.  The meetings and records are incidental to the fundamental purpose of satisfying the committee's mission.  Committees must be held accountable for their results in accord with their stated purpose.  If a committee is not actively pursuing - the key word being actively - the realization of its mission statement, the committee is broken and must be fixed.

In order to drive action, a committee's mission statement must be extremely clear, it must set deadlines for itself, and it must account for its results to the larger group.  Any committee that does not do all of these things is prone to languish and die of neglect, which undermines the organization's reputation and competence; it's a fact.