Committee co-chairs: boosting collaborative leadership

Many nonprofits rely on committees to help out with specific projects and events. Whether it’s for a fundraising gala or a music festival, committee chairs help organize volunteers and delegate tasks to make sure everything gets done in time. 

This can often be a lot of work. Having committee co-chairs, however, can spread responsibilities around and improve teamwork in your leadership team. 

Committee co-chairs

Here’s why a co-chair model works well for some organizations, plus how you can adopt that model for yours.

The Benefits of Having Collaborative Leadership

It can be difficult for one person to plan, organize and attend every single committee meeting. If one chair can’t attend a meeting for personal reasons, a co-chair can step up to help out.

At the Municipal Management Association of Northern California (MMNAC), region co-chairs coordinate with fellow region co-chairs to attend each meeting. They all work together to decide who takes what responsibility for each event. This helps conserve each person’s time without spreading anyone too thin.

Another benefit of collaborative leadership is that it helps ease changes as people come and go. For example, if someone has to go on parental leave or has to move to another city, a co-chair ensures committees and the entire organization continues to run smoothly. 

This is a form of succession planning, which helps committees anticipate and manage changes, the team at Volunteer Now in Northern Ireland writes. “Such healthy turnover helps to ensure openness and accountability but is underpinned by effective planning to secure sufficient continuity.”

Tips for Defining a Co-Chair’s Responsibilities

Being clear about each collaborator’s role can ensure they know what they’re responsible for. 

Outlining everyone’s responsibility helps create a more supportive network. Without such clear outlines, cracks will appear in the working relationship, and tasks and responsibilities can slip through, explains Marc Smiley, principal at Solid Ground Consulting. 

Clarity is especially important when it comes to planning and talking with volunteers. The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment suggests having a designated volunteer coordinator for that work. “Coordinating volunteers should not be a shared responsibility that staff attend to when they have spare time.”

When defining roles, you’ll want to think big and small. Put each person’s role in the context of the overall mission of your organization, but also tie roles back to the specific projects or events those co-chairs oversee. If you need to bring on a new co-chair last minute — for a fundraiser, for example — that kind of clarity will help the project succeed.

Defining Roles for Special Events

Here’s a call for volunteers that shows the importance of defining shared leadership roles in this way: The Alzheimer’s Association Greater Dallas Chapter has created a co-chair role to support the organization of The Longest Day, an event dedicated to awareness and support for Alzheimer’s. 

In addition to helping the committee chair recruit and train volunteers, the co-chair will “establish relationships with the subcommittee chairs, set committee meeting dates and locations, and maintain regular communication with the Committee Chair & Subcommittee Chairs.”

This role defines exactly how the co-chair supports the current chair in managing The Longest Day. It also ensures that the existing chair’s role doesn’t change, which helps everyone stay focused while preventing miscommunication around responsibilities. Everyone’s role for that event is clearly defined.

How to Find the Right Co-Chairs

Involving the current chair or co-chair in the recruitment of another chairperson can ensure that the right person gets chosen for the role. Since the current chair has the strongest grasp of what the role entails, their involvement is key.

At the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA), the board chair is in charge of appointing the chair of each committee, unless otherwise stated. 

If one leader leaves, the remaining person can identify existing volunteer committee members who may make strong future leaders. The best leadership team members are those who have already served on the committees they seek to lead. Further, co-chairs who have worked closely with these committee members already know their skills and strengths. 

To guide this search, Social Venture Partners (SVP) Boulder County recommends identifying people with “the temperament and interpersonal skills to draw out all members of the group.”

Evaluating the right person may mean looking for someone with skills that complement existing chairs or board members. Sonia J. Stamm at Board Effect recommends finding a person who can help existing team members work even better together. Consider the following:

  • How can this person fit into the overall mission of the organization? 
  • What impact will they have on the overall direction?
  • How will they influence, culture and vision? 

These are the things to consider when bringing a new co-chair on board.

For the organization, this helps everyone learn and grow, the team at SBI Association Management says. “It is a natural part of the progression for committee members to eventually become committee chairs, and committee chairs to become board members.”

The Next Level: Collaborative Leadership and Accountability

A single committee or board may have chief executives, treasurers, trustees, directors and members. Involving people in defining their own leadership roles within the committee can clarify responsibilities and hold them more accountable. A leadership circle can also oversee committees to make sure each co-chair’s skills are being used effectively. Establishing this kind of leadership structure is a fundamental responsibility for effective organizations, says Board Source.

Committee leaders should also have an opportunity to contribute to the leadership team to ensure all activities are anchored to a common goal. As the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) explains, a leadership team allows everyone to contribute their ideas and their strengths strategically. 

It’s also about ensuring everyone works well together. “Our driving motivation was to pull down the walls and remove the obstacles to effective collaboration between members and staff,” PAEA’s Danielle Di Silvestro wrote in 2017 about the organization’s realignment of volunteer and staff resources.

Whether your organization has many committees or just a handful, collaborative leadership can keep things running smoothly. Co-chairs share responsibilities, complement one another’s skills and help keep an organization going during times of turnover and change.