7 Things All Advisors Should Consider for Student Org Leadership Structures

A student organization’s leadership structure can say a lot about its mission and values.

There are so many aspects for org leaders to consider. They may have an open-door policy, encouraging transparent communication, or members may be expected to follow a rigid communication chain. Leaders may be elected or appointed. Projects may get done through committees or there may be a greater focus on individual initiatives.

In this blog post, I’ll outline several essential points for student leaders to discuss with their advisors, including the structure of the executive board and the different types of committees to create.

The Executive Board

When designing their executive board, students’ first question might be “what positions do we need?”

But, instead, they should be asking “what is our mission?” An executive board’s structure should be determined by the organization’s mission and how each position will contribute to achieving it.

The Big Four

Some institutions will require new organizations to have what I call the Big Four positions: president, vice president, treasurer, and secretary. These positions carry out the organization’s core functions. If one or more of the positions remains unfilled, the organization will have a hard time operating effectively.

What’s important for students to understand is that they can shape the responsibilities for each position to suit their needs. They can throw out their preconceived notions about what each position is “supposed” to do.

Instead, they can start designing their boards by listing out what functions need to be accomplished each year for the organization to meet its goals. Here are some possible core functions:

Once they have their list of functions, students can start assigning responsibilities to the Big Four positions. Students will need to decide if additional positions should be added to the executive board to fairly divide up these functions. For example, should fundraising responsibilities be overseen by the treasurer, combined with a community service coordinator role, or even managed by a separate philanthropy coordinator?

With the organization’s functions divided up among the executive board, it becomes easier to assign specific duties to each position. If, for example, the vice president is in charge of member recruitment and engagement, then their duties might include facilitating member meetings and managing outreach to potential members.

Other Positions

Besides the Big four, there are many other executive board roles that students could incorporate into their leadership structure.

Overenthusiastic students may pack their board with too many positions, so it’s the advisor’s job to help them decide if any positions are redundant and if it’s even feasible to fill all of those positions.

  • Business manager: This position combines the role of secretary and treasurer into one. Consolidating these roles might help keep the executive board at a manageable size.
  • Events coordinator: If the organization only plans a few events a semester, this position can streamline the planning process. The event coordinator doesn’t have to plan all of the events; they can chair committees that’ll help with that.
  • Marketing/social media coordinator: Social media marketing is complex. A position dedicated to routinely posting content and engaging with commenters acknowledges the importance of online interactions in recruitment and engagement.
  • Community liaison/outreach coordinator: This position can serve as a primary contact for forming and maintaining crucial relationships with organizations and individuals outside of the institution.
  • Risk manager. Risk management isn’t just for Greek life. Any organization that plans large social events or off-campus trips may benefit from having a dedicated person who is trained on mitigating safety risks. Just remember: even with this position in place, org leaders should still conduct pre-event reviews with a staff or faculty advisor.
  • Alumni liaison: Getting alumni involved can enrich the student organization’s programming. For academic-focused orgs, alumni may be interested in hosting industry-specific skill-building workshops and attending networking events with students. And alumni who share an identity with affinity-based groups (such as the Black Student Association, the LGBQTIA+ Pride Club, or Hillel), may want to stay connected through mentoring programs and community celebrations.
  • Diversity & inclusion coordinator: Although DEI is something that all executive board members should commit themselves to, a dedicated DEI coordinator can exclusively focus on creating an inclusive organizational culture. This student’s responsibilities could include reviewing whether membership requirements (such as time commitments and financial costs) might be preventing some students from participating or whether guest speakers truly represent the range of identities that students hold.
  • Member-at-large: This position does not have any specific duties on the executive board. Therefore, this person might take on any project that benefits the organization. Since at-large members are elected the same academic year that they serve (as opposed to the rest of the executive board who was elected at the end of the previous academic year), it gives new members a chance to vote on a leader.

These position descriptions are adapted from my previous blog post 8 Tips for Helping Students Create and Register New Students Orgs.

Committees

Student leaders can use committees to organize members in a way that helps the organization accomplish its mission.

This section will provide you with some insight into how committees can be organized and how an advisor can support committee leaders.

Standing Committees

A standing committee is a permanently established group within the organization. The purpose of each standing committee is often codified into the organization’s constitution or bylaws. If an organization has a continual need for a group of members to handle a specific activity or responsibility, a standing committee ensures that there will always be members assigned to it.

For example, a programming board might have a standing committee that is in charge of booking comedy shows and a community service organization might have one that organizes its annual dance-a-thon.

The organization’s leadership should take some time to explain the purpose of each committee to their members at the start of each semester. Members should be encouraged to explore multiple committees during the first few weeks of the semester to decide which one(s) they are most interested in. It should be made clear whether members can join only one committee or multiple, and whether committee participation is a requirement of overall membership.

Student leaders will have to carefully decide the meeting times and locations of each committee. Say that the plan is to have an organization-wide meeting, followed by members breaking out into their committees. Someone will have to make sure that there is enough space booked for all of the committees to meet simultaneously and not have to shout to hear over each other. This arrangement works well if it’s more convenient for members to have meetings back-to-back and if no one is participating in multiple committees.

Alternatively, committees could each pick their own times to meet. Organization-wide meetings could be held once a month while committees meet weekly or bi-weekly. This arrangement can create more buy-in from committee members when they are offered flexibility in how to accomplish their work. It can also be better for students who prefer to work in smaller groups.

Subcommittees

For large projects, such as events that you anticipate garnering a lot of attendees, it can be useful to divide up the workload even further through subcommittees.

If, for example, a standing committee plans an annual carnival, then there can be subcommittees for planning games, picking and ordering food, and marketing the event.

The feasibility of forming subcommittees will depend on the size of the parent committee. A committee with only a handful of people probably wouldn’t find it a great use of their time to split up into smaller groups. Instead, they could divide tasks among individual members of the committee.

Working Group

A working group or task force is a small group of people who come together to accomplish a short-term, non-recurring project. The group disbands once the project is completed.

Some reasons to form a working group include:

  • To revise the org’s mission, values, or other parts of their constitution
  • To design a new logo or other rebranding projects
  • To create a culture deck for the organization
  • To recommend ways to make structures and processes, such as recruitment strategies or executive board eligibility criteria, more equitable and inclusive
  • To plan an important one-time program, such as for celebrating the university’s 50th anniversary or welcoming a new university president

When deciding who will be a part of a new working group, students should consider who has the skills to accomplish the group’s goals and which stakeholders will be concerned with the group’s end product or recommendation. For example, the group could consist only of executive board members, or it might also include other members with specialized skills or interests.

Committee Leadership

Whether the leader of each committee is called a chair, a coordinator, or has another title, student organizations need to outline how each leader is chosen and what their responsibilities are.

For organizations with standing committees, it might make sense to have executive board members be the chairs. For subcommittees, the chair might be someone who volunteers for the role or is appointed by the executive board.

Alternatively, committees could utilize a co-chair format wherein one co-chair is an executive board member and the other is a general committee member.

While committee leaders can be appointed by the executive board or voted in by members, some committees may have an additional ex officio member. An ex officio member is a member of a committee by virtue of them holding another position. For example, an organization’s president or vice president may be an ex officio member of each standing committee. Or, a committee chair may be an ex officio member of each subcommittee.

Ex officio members are incorporated into committee leadership structures when it serves the committee’s purpose to have additional insight from the ex officio member. Ex officio members are usually not allowed to vote on committees, but each organization can do whatever works best for them.

Training Committee Leaders

Students seldomly come into a committee leadership role with vast knowledge of how to effectively lead a committee.

But, as an advisor, you can, well, advise them on this. For starters, it’s essential for committee leaders to know how to facilitate a meeting. They should also learn how to design an effective agenda, ensure equal opportunity for participation, and develop a good meeting culture — all topics that you could host skill-building workshops around. Check out these articles by Voltage Control and Meeteor for more skills and techniques to cover.

If your students want to have more organized meetings, they could consider adopting Robert’s Rules of Order or another parliamentary procedure. If the executive board or individual committees want to go this route, a university staff member, outside consultant, or student government leader should teach parliamentary procedure to them.

Project management also comes with the territory of leading a committee. You might share these project management tools with students to help them become more effective leaders.

An organization’s structure can change over time as its students identify new or evolving needs. For example, executive board positions may be added or phased out, or committee structures may be reorganized. 

As an advisor, you can empower students to redesign their organization’s structure as many times as needed and in any way that helps them further accomplish their mission.

What other leadership structures, including committees and e-board positions, have you helped student orgs establish? We’d love to hear your ideas. Connect with us on Twitter @HelloPresence and @JustinTerlisner.

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Justin Terlisner

About the author: Justin Terlisner is a student affairs professional who focuses on helping students thrive through dynamic leadership education and inclusive supervision practices. When not writing curriculum or working with students, you’ll find him enjoying a book, hiking, or baking. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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