Advisory Board Best Practices

Advisory Board Best Practices: Roles and Advice

“Don’t worry, we’ll create an advisory board so you can stay involved,” says an incoming board chair to his predecessor. The not uncommon gesture is extended, of course, with enthusiasm, sincerity and best intentions. And the statement is posed as much as a question (to me) as a promise (to her). Then someone else on this board asks me directly, “what do you think of advisory boards?”

Well aware that half the group expects me to support the concept while the rest hopes I flat-out condemn the idea, I respond carefully. “They can be useful to nonprofit organizations that understand and narrowly define the advisory board’s role.”

Ours is to Reason Why

In essence, it can be complicated – not necessarily in the process of creating the advisory board, but in determining whether to have one. Any group creates work for the entity that manages it and every nonprofit already manages a governing board, so it’s important to consider “why?” in weighing whether to establish a body of advisors.

As a first step, look at your board of directors. As suggested by Nonprofit Quarterly, consider whether you like orienting volunteers, ensuring they’re doing the right things the right way, and removing them when necessary. Many organizations struggle to build and/or maintain high-performing boards. In fact, some organizations seek to supplement the board of directors by creating an advisory body to function in ways the board does not. In such cases, it is essential to improve the effectiveness of the governing body, not try to work around it.

Better as Individuals or a Group?

Even when it’s clear an organization does need extra hands or expertise, group activity might not be warranted. According to Nonprofit Quarterly, the primary purpose of a group is bringing together people to “talk, explore, argue, disagree, offer insights, and learn together to produce meaningful results and impact.” Ideally, that’s what effective boards and committees do.

If, however, the goal is to complete various tasks for an organization, tapping specific individuals to execute them will suffice. The team leaders of an organization that runs a walk-a-thon, for instance, might oversee scores of volunteers over a year-long planning cycle without having to manage — and create meaning for — a group, as well. The process of creating a group, rather than a cadre of talented individuals who each serve a different purpose, requires another level of planning and engagement that might not be necessary.

Types of Advisory Boards

There are, of course, valid reasons to establish an advisory board. They can expand organizational capacity, reach, and impact in ways that might not be appropriate or feasible for board or staff members. Advisory boards typically fall in to one of the following categories, as listed by Blue Avocado:

  • Fundraising – When an organization wants to invite prospective donors onto an official body, but realizes these stakeholders don’t have the time, interest, or skills to be good board members. As part of an advisory board, these donors can engage in some high-level thinking as well as financial giving and getting.
  • Programmatic – When the board of an organization focuses primarily on fundraising and is not connected to the industry or constituent base, an advisory board can bring needed expertise and perspective.
  • Letterhead – When an organization wants to leverage the names of prestigious friends without requiring additional involvement, such stakeholders can lend support through an “Advisory Council” that leverages their good will.
  • Fiscally sponsored – Before an organization establishes its own 501(c)(3) status, it might work under the fiscal sponsorship of another entity and have an “advisory board” that functions like a board of directors, without the same legal responsibilities that would come with incorporating.

When to Proceed?

In the latter case, the advisory board functions instead of a governing board, but might evolve later to become one as the organization’s needs change. In each of the other cases, the advisory body is an additional group, created with a specific intent. Before embarking on that path, organizations should consider the following questions offered by Nonprofit Quarterly:

  1. What are you trying to accomplish? What is the problem you are trying to solve? What opportunity are you trying to exploit?
  2. What do you need to help you accomplish that which you are trying to accomplish?
  3. What is the concept of the potential group and what would be the nature of its work?
  4. What is the concept of an individual(s) doing task(s) and what would be the nature of this work?
  5. What are the challenges and opportunities in designing/facilitating/managing a group and do we have the capability (skills) and capacity (time, human resources, etc.) to serve the group – and have it serve us — well? Does a group add sufficient value to justify the investment?

How to Proceed?

Once you have identified the true value-add of an advisory board for your organization, it is wise to establish clear guidelines for that special group. Blue Avocado recommends the following steps:

  1. Develop a job description – Be clear about the responsibilities, activities, expectations, and limits on authority of the advisory body. Share this tool not only with prospective members, but also with your board and any staff that might be impacted by its existence.
  2. Distinguish governing and advisory board roles – draw an org chart to show lines of authority for each advisory board and where it fits in the organization. One organization might include multiple advisory bodies, such as a Program Advisory Committee to spearhead the fundraising event and a Council of Advisors to share expertise with the board and CEO, so delineating responsibilities is critical. Strategic naming also can be a useful tool, as “council” or “committee” denote something different than “board.”
  3. Select an appropriate chair — Consider who should chair the entity, whether a community leader or a board member, and why. What message do they send and what talent do they bring?
  4. Name fundraising – If the advisory body is convened to raise money, consider a name that denotes that responsibility, such as “Friend of X.”
  5. Commit the time – Don’t establish the group if you don’t have the capacity to leverage it. Those you tapped will be frustrated and disillusioned if you don’t offer them a meaningful experience and opportunity to contribute value.
  6. Disband – If the group isn’t achieving its goals, consider asking members to serve as individual advisors so that you can leverage their talents without also managing a collective body.

All of the above leads us back to my client’s question about creating an advisory board to keep the outgoing board chair engaged. There are numerous ways a board chair – or any board member – can remain active with an organization upon the completion of his/her term. Perhaps joining an advisory council or committee is among them, provided that entity already exists to serve a clearly defined purpose that is separate from the board of directors.

Sonia J. Stamm

Sonia J. Stamm is Governance Consultant at BoardEffect. Since almost our inception, she has shared a best practice perspective on governance with our team and clients, partnering to guide boards toward optimal implementation of our software. As founder and principal of a nonprofit leadership consulting firm, Sonia supports the evolution of mission-based organizations through her work in board development, leadership transition and succession, and organizational effectiveness. A seasoned facilitator, trainer, and consultant, she enjoys guiding boards and organizations through critical junctures in their development.