Committees in Robert’s Rules

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Do you want committees that run smooth and effective meetings? Download our paper, “Committees in Robert’s Rules,” to learn how they can.

Committees in Robert’s Rules – Introduction

A committee is a group of volunteers who have agreed to do a job defined by someone else.

The key fact about a committee is that it is not its own master. When a board of directors, a city council or a faculty senate creates a committee, it has the right and the duty of deciding what the committee is called, who will chair it, who will serve on it, what job it is to do, and when its job will be over. If the authority that creates the committee chooses, it may change the mandate, remove the chair, add members or take them away, ignore the committee’s recommendation, or even dissolve the committee before its work is complete.

Committees in Robert's Rules

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Clear understanding of these facts would remove much of the heartbreak that sometimes accompanies committee work. Characteristically, when volunteers undertake a committee job, they bring dedication, energy and their own views. This is desirable and praiseworthy. Such commitment and energy drive much civic improvement.

However, in the course of tackling whatever job they have been given, members of committees can get carried away. Committee members sometimes invest so much time and energy that they come to see themselves as the owners of the task. They may:

•  expand their scope beyond what was assigned;
•  move from policy into operational details that are not their responsibility;
•  make commitments beyond the authority they were given;
•  disregard timelines and other parameters of their assignment;
•  try to change the chair appointed by the governing body;
•  fail to consult other interested persons or staff;
•  decline to collaborate with other committees whose duties intersect with their own; or
•  react with outrage when their recommendation is not approved by the overseeing body.

This grim picture is not the whole story, of course. Voluntary committees are a huge part of the fabric of our country today. They make an inestimable contribution to the functioning of our world,
both in the civic and in the not-for-profit realm. We literally could not run our society without them.

We believe, however, that both committee members themselves, and the appointing bodies, need to be very clear on the facts of their functioning, and to commit themselves to timely and clear
communication, if the work is to be done well. Neglecting to attend to these aspects can lead to friction, bad feeling, and wasted time and energy on all sides.

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Ann Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and nonprofit board directors and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments.


  1. Iggy D. on August 13, 2021 at 2:34 pm

    Ann. What a great over view of committee roles and responsibilities. All too often, as you have pointed out, committee members believe they have much more authority than they actually do, most often, as directed by the committee chair. A humble understanding by the committee chair, who can then lay a clear understanding with committee members, would alleviate immense frustration on the part of committee members.

    • Ann Macfarlane on August 13, 2021 at 3:36 pm

      So glad that you find this helpful, Iggy. Yes, the frustration can be very great. Knowing the “terms of engagement” really helps. Thanks for writing!