I recently attended a meeting of a new volunteer committee and was reminded of why it is so important to start off a new group with a terms of reference. A terms of reference is a great way for group members to gel with a shared understanding of how the committee will operate. It is also useful for managing high conflict personalities, if you have those in your group (read more about them at http://highconflictinstitute.com/). For our group, a terms of reference would likely have prevented some initial spats about who creates the agenda, how minutes are distributed, etc.
So, what should be included in a terms of reference? Here are some key components:
- Purpose and mandate
- What is the purpose and scope of the committee?
- Does this committee pass binding motions, make recommendations, give advice?
- How many members?
- Are there different types of members (for example, representing different groups)? Is there a minimum number required from each group?
- How are members chosen, appointed or elected?
- What are the roles of the committee members? How are they selected?
- Do members serve indefinitely or for a limited term?
- Does the committee report to an individual, a larger committee, a group of members?
- How often does the committee report to this body?
- Does this other body direct the committee? If so, how?
- Meeting procedures
- How often will the group meet?
- Who sets the agenda?
- Who chairs the meeting?
- Will the committee use Roberts Rules of Order or a less formal way of making decisions?
- Who records the minutes/notes?
- Who approves the minutes/notes before they are distributed outside of the committee?
- Who else receives the minutes?
- Are meeting discussions confidential?
- Who is authorized to speak for the group?
- Does the committee have a budget?
- If so, how are spending decisions made?
Not all of the items listed above will be relevant for your committee, but even a small, informal group can benefit from discussing these items when first formed. Such discussions clarify assumptions, manage expectations, and provide some common ground from which to work. I have been on many a committee where it later became clear that a terms of reference could have saved time and minimized disagreements.