Do you need an advisory board? Benefits and considerations: Part I

Someone the other day said to me, “I’ve served on advisory and regular boards, and I’m familiar with both.” But as she continued, I realized the difference between the two was muddled in her mind. It occurred to me this might be a common predicament since, well, a board is aboard is a board, or so it may seem…

In fact, there are different types of boards with different functions and compositions. Understanding the differences is the first step to knowing whether a given nonprofit should have a particular board or not.

The advisory board’s role and function are distinct from the governing (a.k.a. “regular”) board. Simply put, the advisory board’s role is, as its name implies, to advise; where the advisory board advises, the governing board decides. So, while advisory boards are a particularly useful entity in the nonprofit world, they are optional. The governing board, of course, is not.

If your nonprofit is considering an advisory board, here are some useful questions to address:

1) Should our nonprofit have one? Is our organization sufficiently stable and mature to manage both the governing board and an advisory board?

2) If so, what is the specific role an advisory board should play in our particular nonprofit–what exactly do we need advice on?

3) How should the advisory board operate and with what expectations?

4) And conversely, what should advisory board members expect from the nonprofit in return?

5) Finally, who should be on it and for how long?

Following is some guidance to aid in addressing each of these questions.

First, should your nonprofit have an advisory board?

In theory, there isn’t a nonprofit that wouldn’t benefit from an advisory board. All organizations need good advice and a great cadre of people from whom to get it when needed. Sounds simple enough.

However, it should go without saying that a nonprofit’s governing board is its first priority. If there’s any doubt about the nonprofit’s ability to develop and consistently maintain a great governing board, it certainly is not time for an advisory board.

That said, even if the nonprofit’s position is stable enough to consider an advisory board, there is another aspect to the advisory board’s role that adds to the complexity of what looks like a simple question. That aspect is credibility.

A good advisory board is made up of people who are well-known and are recognized experts in some aspect of the nonprofit’s work. For example, a world-renowned conductor or musician would make an excellent advisory board member of a symphony or opera company. In this way, advisory board members not only offer great advice, resources and connections, they also add to the nonprofit’s credibility–-they help demonstrate by lending their name to the nonprofit’s website, letterhead, etc. that the organization is itself savvy and connected.

Nonprofit-Know How by Rebecca Reynolds

The individuals who are ideal candidates for advisory boards are hopefully influential, in demand and therefore, busy. Because of this, advisory boards place an additional and in some ways, heightened demand on the nonprofit’s time and attention that the nonprofit must be able to meet for the advisory board to be effective. Not only will the nonprofit need to have connections in the arenas where this caliber of individual is found, it will also need the experience to successfully interact with these individuals.

All advisory board members don’t have to be CEOs of major corporations, senators or international celebrities, although names like this do help, but to be on an advisory board the individual should have the credentials and position to be of real benefit as both an advisor and credibility enhancer to the nonprofit.

Therefore, the nonprofit will need a certain maturity to ensure the advisory board serves its purpose. Small nonprofits or startups may not yet be in the position to structure, populate and interact with a board of advisors in addition to its governing board. Recognizing this upfront is the first step to developing such readiness. Once this readiness is in sight, it’s time to move to question two.

What is the specific role an advisory board should play in our particular nonprofit?

The most important thing a nonprofit can do to ensure the success of its advisory board is define the role and expectations in advance of inviting individuals to join it. This is important for several reasons: First, all groups being formed on behalf of the organization function more effectively if expectations are clear from the outset. And second, without clear expectations, potential advisory members will either be unclear and unimpressed or worst case, may take it upon themselves to assume a role that is inappropriate for the nonprofit. And finally, since the advisory board differs substantially from the governing board, it is especially important to make the role and function of this new body clear to the entire organization.

The best way to do this is to officially charter the group. The charter is the document that outlines roles, responsibilities and expectations. Don’t let the idea of a “charter” overwhelm you: It’s basically a job description for a group. There are plenty of samples to be found on the Internet, but your organization can always create a simple charter based on your job description format.

When developing the charter, describe the role of the advisory board (to advise on matters such as…), its function (why it’s needed, what benefits the nonprofit will derive from it) and the expectations of it. In determining what exactly your nonprofit needs advice on, remember to think big. Look for strategic areas the nonprofit is planning to develop that it may not currently have expertise on, such as facility expansion or a new geographical service market. After all, the advisory board is made up of people with substantial experience and contacts, people ideal to help the organization reach its next level of greatness!

This is Part I of a two-part article on advisory boards. Next time we’ll cover questions three through five: the expectations of advisory board members, including if they should meet and make financial contributions. We’ll also discuss what advisory board members should expect from the nonprofit and more.


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