Running Effective Committees – 7 Research Findings

Have you ever experienced a dysfunctional committee meeting that is dominated by overbearing individuals or even worse an overbearing culture?


You are not alone


A recent piece of research titled Stepping Up or Stepping Out? Recruitment and retention of volunteer leaders in grassroots associations’, studied ‘grassroots associations’ in South Australia. The purpose of the research is to understand why the number of people willing to take on leadership roles in volunteer lead organisations is declining.

In Australia, they estimate there are over half a million volunteer-led organisations that are quietly contributing to their communities. Grassroots associations are typically led by volunteers that enjoy contributing to a common cause with like-minded people. In theory, their service to their cause should drive self satisfaction and a sense of purpose.

Unfortunately, the love of service that drives volunteers is increasingly being diminished by poor leadership and dysfunctional committees. The resulting internal conflicts are stifling organisations, reducing the number of volunteers putting their hands up and preventing them from achieving their community purpose.


The authors of this research had two main objectives in studying grassroots associations:
  1. Identify the motivations and barriers to leadership
  2. Identify recruitment and retention strategies that would encourage more association members to nominate for leadership positions


They conducted the research using focus groups involving participants from a variety of ‘grassroots associations’. The associations included a wide range of typical community organisations including sports, healthcare, civic arts, recreation and hobby clubs. To promote diversity in their participants and findings, the researchers targeted three different socio-economic regions.

The findings whilst fascinating are not too unexpected. The researchers acknowledged the typical conditions in which it requires committee members and leaders to operate within. Committee members and leaders are often insufficiently trained to manage the complexity of balancing strategic direction, managing people and dealing with the outside world to raise funds. In addition, they are also often faced with time constraints and high workloads.

In most instances these barriers result in a low turnover of committee and leadership positions which over time has a tendency to create several cultural issues.


The Problems

  • ‘Village Napoleons’ can arise leading their organisations in an undemocratic and dictatorial fashion
  • ‘Founders Syndrome’ may arise as original creators of associations don’t let go of the past and become inflexible in their management style
  • If fewer people put up their hands to lead, then ‘oligarchical’ leadership may arise and associations end up being led by a small elite ‘committee within a committee’


They confirmed these toxic organisational cultures in the research as a major barrier to recruiting committee members and leaders. When regular organisation members were asked why they would not put their hand up to join a committee or take a leadership role, they gave the following four main reasons in order of importance:


1.  Misuse of power and internal politics

This was by far the most significant reason given. When power is used incorrectly, it destabilises committees by diminishing trust, respect and credibility. Unfortunately, it may also lead to an environment prone to bullying behaviour which impacts the health and wellbeing of committee members. The researchers wrote that “the mental anguish that participants experienced through their committee work was quite disturbing”.


2.  Lack of time

This was the most common barrier reported. Family and work commitments were given priority over volunteering. As the most relatable and understandable barrier it is often provided to cover up their ‘real’ reason, the other barriers in this list.


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3. ‘Red-tape’

They defined this barrier as having to work within associations that had “obligations that are excessive, unnecessary or confusing”. Frustration arises from poor processes and bureaucracy which most times is created by a committees reluctance to change. Internal association policies involving archaic rules and increasing government compliance requirement were equally frustrating.


4. Lack of confidence

Younger committee members can see being part of a committee as daunting. The presence of overly formal, old-fashioned and rigid committee meeting processes often leave younger members feeling like they do not have the skills necessary for participation. This may often result in resignation from their position because they are not confident enough to continue.


The Solutions

For those of you that are or have been in a committee for a long time, it would be worthwhile doing some serious reflection. Being able to honestly identify and constructively remove any of the barriers listed above may be the difference between your organisation thriving or slowly fading into insignificance. The slow erosion of a grassroots organisation is not a pleasant thought for those that have given a lifetime of voluntary service. It’s also very sad to think communities could lose organisations that make such a difference.

To prevent this occurring, there are some methods that researchers found were effective in ensuring that leaders and committee members can be successfully recruited. They found the following successful strategies were commonly applied:


1. Ensure leaders have skills

Being a committee member for a long time does not necessarily make you capable of leading. It is necessary for leaders to have leadership skills that include appropriate behaviour, delegation and problem-solving skills to name a few. It is recommended that a committee make an explicit list or charter of the leadership qualities required and regularly review how the leaders are doing against those requirements (constructively).

If there are gaps, be open about them and collaborative in how they are addressed. Maybe some training is required or giving permission to committee members to raise (constructively) any concerns they may have. Agreeing and sticking to a leadership standard is critical.


2. Strong lines of communication

Good communication was reported as a leading factor for retaining committee members. Examples of good communication provided included leaders showing inclusive behaviours, keeping the organisation abreast of activities, active listening, considering the ideas of others, not interrupting, and being diplomatic.

There is definitely some crossover with the previous point on leadership skills, and so it may be necessary to add some of these communication skills into your leadership requirements.


3. Recognise members

To retain your committee members, it is important to genuinely recognise and thank people for their time and effort. Never let an opportunity to thank your committee members slide by. Wether its formal recognition in association communications or perhaps just a one-on-one friendly thank you, do not underestimate the intrinsic motivation this can create.


4. Be willing to change

All things change over time and it is important to recognise change for the better versus change for the sake of it. Inflexibility is the enemy of innovation and progress. Learn to test new ideas, and more importantly, be very specific about why a change should be made. Even more importantly, learn to test the impact of any changes. Consider every change as a scientific experiment testing a hypothesis. Change will have a positive impact on your organisation, or it won’t. In either case, you will be none the wiser if you don’t have a way to measure the impact.


5. Be specific about roles and responsibilities

Roles and responsibilities in your committee will often result in an unfair workload on a select few. When this is the case, the likelihood that someone will put up their hand to take on that role down the track is greatly reduced as nobody wants to over commit their time. Committees must be willing to balance workload between members regardless of roles. That is to say when the burden falls on one committee member there must be a way to make this work imbalance visible and provide support from others to rebalance the burden. This requires organisational flexibility and cross training of roles.

Download our FREE Committee Role Descriptions to help your volunteer’s understand their responsibilities.


In this pack you’ll get the following Committee Role Descriptions 

  • President (Chairperson)
  • Vice President
  • Treasurer
  • Secretary
  • General Committee Member

Download the Committee Role Descriptions now!


6. Go ahead and ask

A key finding of the research was that regular members of a club or organisation are probably not going to raise their hand for a committee role. It is recommended that a proactive recruitment method whereby potential new committee members are approached directly and asked to join the committee.


7. Reach out using multiple media channels

Research also found that advertising committee roles in community papers and through social media rather than just within a membership group. It also found that by doing so the reputation of the organisation and its standing in the community improved.



It would be fair to say that there are many obstacles in the way of an effectively functioning volunteer led organisation, but the greatest of these is ensuring that misuse of power and unhealthy politics do not prevent recruitment of new leadership. We encourage you to honestly assess your committee to understand where improvements may be achieved and use the tools listed.

It is so important that grassroots associations survive and thrive. Without the tireless work of the many, our communities would certainly be worse off. Is your organisation merely surviving, or is it thriving?

Still hungry for more great tips, checkout our article Conduct Amazing Committee Meetings.

Happy Fundraising! 



‘Stepping Up or Stepping Out? Recruitment and retention of volunteer leaders in grassroots associations’, Mex. C.L., (2017), Third Sector Review, Vol. 24 (1), pp.71-96.



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