Advisory boards Part II: getting clear before you fill the chair
Picking up where we left off with advisory boards, we’ll continue our discussion of what the nonprofit needs to consider before bringing on any members. To reiterate, all the decisions the nonprofit makes with regard to the role and function of an advisory board should be concisely articulated in the chartering document. The charter creates internal clarity and also serves to inform the prospective advisory board members when the time comes to recruit. As always, setting expectations from the outset makes for a good match between board member (no matter what type of board) and the nonprofit.
Let’s move on to question #3 in our list (see Part I for the list) of questions nonprofits should address prior to starting an advisory board:
How should the advisory board operate and with what expectations?
First, a key issue to define is if the advisory board will meet. Depending on the type of people on the advisory board and where they’re located, meetings may not be indicated. For example, a symphony that has international musicians and conductors on its advisory board is unlikely to require meetings. However, if your nonprofit is starting out and has local bank presidents, government representatives and CEOs from peer organizations on its advisory board, then a meeting or two per year may be useful and even welcomed by the members. But remember, the primary function of an advisory board is to advise–-this can be done with a simple phone call or brief one-on-one meeting now and then.
Next is the question of contributions: Should advisory boards be expected to make them? While this is a decision for the particular nonprofit, it’s generally a good assumption that if a potential advisory board member is willing and able to give a major contribution then s/he probably should be considered for the governing board. This is because the nonprofit wants individuals on the governing board who are highly committed and able to lead in raising money, qualities that can result in major contributions. So in most cases, advisory board members are not expected to donate funds to the organization since what is wanted from them is their advice and stature, and a huge stake in the nonprofit is not necessary.
One case where a financial contribution may be merited is for advisory board members who have been outstanding board members, and the advisory board position is used as an honorary position. In such a case, the individual will likely continue his/her charitable giving and may set an example for other advisory board members. However, this practice is more of a blurring of advisory and honorary boards or emeritus positions, which may or may not be a beneficial strategy.
In addition to defining what is expected of advisory board members, the nonprofit will also want to answer question #4:
What should advisory board members expect from the nonprofit in return?
In most cases, the limited nature of the advisory board role–-occasional advice and name endorsement–-usually results in minimal expectations on the part of advisory board members. That’s one distinct advantage of advisory boards.
However, since the advisory board member’s role is to give advice, the nonprofit should avail itself of this expertise periodically. This may seem obvious, but remember that if the advisory board member is never called, the individual may forget about the relationship or even take offense at not being asked to fulfill the role. Conversely, if called too often, the individual may find the position an annoyance. (Calling too often is likely a sign that the nonprofit really needs that individual’s expertise on the governing board.) Finding the sweet spot of how often to contact advisory board members is up to the nonprofit, but a good rule of thumb is between one and four times per year.
Regarding the use of the advisory board member’s name and affiliation, it should go without saying there is no margin for error for the nonprofit in correctly spelling the name and labeling the affiliation title–-and keeping both up to date. Beyond this, communicating periodically with the advisory board members about the nonprofit’s efforts and achievements makes good sense.
Any other kindnesses and/or acknowledgments for advisory board members are at the discretion of the nonprofit and could require some creativity. It’s wise to carefully consider the type of individual desired and then develop a range of possible appropriate acknowledgements, just as is done for any donor. Some research into what other similar organizations are doing is always a good starting point.
Finally, question #5:
Who and how many should be on the advisory board and for how long?
The nonprofit will want to develop a list of prospects. The primary criteria are:
mission and/or mission support expertise needed by the nonprofit and the willingness to advise
position and standing in the community and/or industry of the nonprofit
willingness to have his/her name used in the nonprofit’s marketing materials (letterhead/website, etc.)
accessible to supply expertise, advice and contacts as needed by the nonprofit
not suitable for the governing board (i.e., no interest, not enough time, not an appropriate match to other governing board members, etc.).
As to the number of advisory board members, this is also a matter of choice, but a good guideline is too few (less than five) may appear thin and not enough to constitute a board. (If the nonprofit has a few individuals who would make great advisory members, they can be recognized simply as special advisors, rather than a board.). Conversely, too many members (more than a dozen) may be difficult to keep track of and to find space for in marketing materials. However, some large institutions have advisory boards numbering many more, as well as a host of other special entities and groups, to create layers and breadth of organizational support. This is an excellent practice, as long as the nonprofit has the capacity to maintain each group and to be sufficiently clear about its role, purpose and function.
Terms are another issue the advisory board charter should address. Since advisory board members’ duties are fairly limited, the terms maybe indefinite. This may best suit the nonprofit anyway since this type of individual is not easily replaced. Imagine if your organization was able to secure one of the leaders in its field as an advisory board member. Would the organization want that individual to rotate off? Likely not. So, as long as the person is willing and his/her name and position are in good standing, the nonprofit should have no reason to want to rotate him/her off the advisory board.
All told, advisory boards can be tremendous assets to nonprofits. One great contact can catapult the nonprofit ahead, and one piece of timely advice can save hours of trial and error. However, like all boards, advisory boards are more valuable to nonprofits that have done the work up front to define and articulate roles and expectations. This time investment is entirely worthwhile since the long-term benefits of advice and credibility are incalculable.