Posts Tagged ‘advisory boards’

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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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?

Nonprofit-Know How by Rebecca Reynolds

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.

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