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Mary Hiland, PhD

About Mary

Do We Need or Want an Advisory “Board”?

Do we need or want an advisory “board”?

This question came up in a group of nonprofit leaders I recently attended. There were as many perspectives as there were people and, clearly, not a consistent understanding about what they even meant by “Advisory Board.” The discussion yielded some very interesting information about a wide variety of special groups these nonprofit leaders had formulated purposefully to fulfill an equally diverse set of motives. There are some guidelines I think boards and nonprofit executives should keep in mind as they consider purposefully forming what is commonly referred to as an “Advisory Board” which I share here for your consideration.

I think it is becoming conventional wisdom (if it isn’t already) that it is a good idea to avoid the word “board” in the title of any adjunct advisory group a nonprofit forms. This is for the simple reason that people on such a “board” have and can confuse their roles and responsibilities with the nonprofit’s governing board. In another situation, I have seen the title Advisory Committee used and that actually also caused confusion about whether or not the group was a committee of the board (which is wasn’t). For our purposes here, I am going to refer to these as advisory groups.

What we label advisory groups and carefully defining their purpose is really a matter of managing expectations up front to avoid problems later. It directly relates to the authority of the group to make decisions that affect or obligate the nonprofit in some way. Advisory groups may be formed by a board or by an executive or both. This will affect the lines of authority and accountabilities. Because they involve external relationships I suggest it is best for the board and the executive to at least consider the pros and cons together and how it is an opportunity to enhance the organization’s social capital. Either way, keep in mind that it is important not to give the impression of decision-making authority when there is none. Regardless of who forms the advisory group, it is helpful to consider the following: What is the relationship of the envisioned advisory group to the board of directors? What is the role of the board, if any, in forming the group? The same questions apply to the executive director as well. You want the executive director, board members, and the advisory group members to have these answers, again as a matter of managing expectations.

Let’s consider now why a nonprofit would want to form an advisory group. The motives can fall within the purview of the board (i.e., strategic) or solely within the purview of the executive director (tactical or operational). Either way, the first thing that needs to be clearly defined when nonprofit leaders are considering forming an advisory group is its purpose.  It has been my experience that nonprofits form advisory groups for one or more of the following reasons:

1.  Legitimization.  In this case, the nonprofit is looking for credibility and an opportunity to build its reputation. This is a common motive and often involves the use of someone’s name while refraining from requesting much else. For example, the board of a nonprofit I know made a list of people they felt were community leaders of stature and, with the executive director, launched an outreach effort to those individuals. Their purpose was simply to be able to create a list of known leaders who, once familiar with the organization’s mission and work, allowed them to use their names as an endorsement of the organization’s work. The names were listed in the nonprofit’s publications, website, collateral, stationery, etc. as the nonprofit deemed appropriate to its purpose. In this case, the use of “advisory” in the group’s title is a bit of a misnomer!

2.  Influence. Not unlike legitimization, another reason for forming an advisory group is to gather people who have the potential and inclination to assist the board and the nonprofit’s other leaders to influence others on the nonprofit’s behalf. This can be for advocacy related to public policy, for example, or to influence donors (present and potential). The possibilities are as varied as nonprofits themselves. One nonprofit I know developed an “Honorary” group of influencers – door-openers – to assist with their capital campaign. Nonprofits need to develop and nurture a variety of spheres of influence related to their missions and creating a focused group with that in mind can really make a difference. With this kind of advisory group it is especially important to clarify the roles and expectations for the group and relative to the board of directors. You want to ensure that board members do not become less engaged in having their own influential impact on behalf of their nonprofit, thinking the advisory group has taken over that job!

3. Expertise. Another reason to form an advisory group is to access needed expertise. This type of advisory group may be formed at the operational level (versus the strategic, board level ah, so maybe this differentiation operational/strategic thus board/staff should be explained in that transitional opening paragraph) of the nonprofit to address a particular operational area’s need for expertise and advice. On the other hand, the board may want to have access to a group of professionals (attorneys, accountants, marketing experts etc.) who are willing to give of their expertise as needed for the board’s work but who don’t care to govern or aren’t needed for governance. There is a distinction, of course, between recruiting professionals and/or experts to serve as non-board members on board committees and forming a specific group to have on tap for their expertise as needed. Thus, Another reason to be thoughtful regarding when an advisory group is really desirable.

An example of an advisory group formed for expertise, is a Medical Advisory Council I am aware of.  The board and executive director formulated this Council of six medical professionals of varying disciplines. They meet once a year to provide subjects and content ideas and resources for the nonprofit’s annual conference. Another example is an Anniversary Council a nonprofit formed in the context of its strategic planning process to advise the nonprofit in the planning and execution of its 50th anniversary. This group’s work was time-limited.

4.  Support. Perhaps this is a “catch-all” category but nonprofits form advisory groups for general support of the mission. This can take many forms. The board of one nonprofit I know decided to create an Emeritus Council of past board members. The purpose was to keep people connected—overlapping with the reasons above depending on the circumstances and nonprofit’s needs.

Here are some guidelines for boards and executives to consider when they are thinking about forming an advisory group:

  • Be clear about the purpose of the group
  • Define the role and expectations
  • Establish criteria for composition consistent with the purpose.
  • Determine the recruitment, selection, and orientation process.

And some questions:

  • What structure, meeting frequency (if any), etc. will support that purpose?
  • What capacity do you need to have to provide the support the group will require?
  • What’s the relationship with the board? What’s the role of the executive director, if any?

There are many benefits to forming purposeful groups to support the mission of your nonprofit and leverage the social capital of the board. But it is important to recognize that thoughtful planning up front is critical to realizing the full potential of such a group. There are no special rules limiting how you can engage people so be creative!


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