New committee? Start here

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  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:

  1. Purpose and mandate
    • What is the purpose and scope of the committee?
    • Does this committee pass binding motions, make recommendations, give advice?
  2. Membership
    • 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?
  3. Reporting
    • 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?
  4. 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?
  5. Communications
    • Are meeting discussions confidential?
    • Who is authorized to speak for the group?
  6. Budget
    • 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.



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