Nonprofit Advisory Boards: Why They Matter, How to Get Them Off the Ground

Now, more than ever, advisory boards can make a difference in the health of your nonprofit

How to foster effective nonprofit advisory boards

Is your nonprofit considering setting up an advisory board? Before taking the leap, make sure your organization defines the advisory board’s role and how the group will differ from the board of directors or trustees.

What is the purpose of an advisory board?

An advisory board is a volunteer group formed to give advice and support to a nonprofit’s board of directors or executive staff. An advisory board may contribute to the organization in many different ways—and the same nonprofit may have multiple advisory boards.

One advisory board, for example, could be established to involve prospective donors, offering them a forum to give advice as well as donate and fundraise. Another advisory board could be made up of those who are more representative of the community, such as young adults. Rather than fundraise, members of this advisory board could provide input on the organization’s work.

Yet another kind of advisory board could serve as a way for prestigious former governing board members or community leaders to lend their names to the nonprofit’s letterhead. Some nonprofits also might treat advisory boards as a way to train future members of the board of directors.

What’s the difference between an advisory board and the board of directors?

Once your nonprofit sets up an advisory board, it is important for advisory board members and the board of directors to understand their roles and the differences between the two groups. Failing to do so may cause confusion.

Unlike the board of directors, an advisory board does not have formal legal responsibilities or decision-making authority and cannot issue directives that must be followed. Advisory boards typically do not have as many rules and procedures, such as those concerning board elections, as a board of directors.

Instead, like other committees, an advisory board makes recommendations and provides information and materials to the board of directors. The advisory board’s tasks and powers are delegated by and subject to the direction and control of the board of directors.

An easy way to make the distinction clear is to give the advisory board a name that doesn’t involve the word “board.” Options might include advisory committee, community council, our advisers, or whatever makes sense for your organization.

What are the first steps in creating an advisory board?

Creating an effective advisory board requires more than an invitation. You must delve into the details of how the advisory board will operate.

Start by creating a written description that includes:

  • Purpose of the advisory board
  • Responsibilities of advisory board members
  • Meeting frequency
  • Performance expectations
  • Intended duration of the advisory board
  • Guidelines for membership
  • Removal procedures

You can make this documentation part of the board of directors’ bylaws and share the description with prospective advisory board members. Armed with tasks and expectations, you will better know what kind of members you need. When you’ve identified candidates, ask if they will help you with a specific task.

Who should lead the advisory board?

Many nonprofits appoint a chair of the advisory board to drive advisory board operations. The chair typically serves as the main contact with the board of directors. Or, a member of the board of directors might lead the advisory board. You might also consider appointing a community leader as chair of the advisory board and have him or her act as a spokesperson for your organization in the community.

No matter who you select to lead the advisory board, assign a staff or board member to attend advisory board meetings and make reports to the board of directors.

What are some ways to foster an effective advisory board?

To get the most out of your organization’s advisory board, keep its purpose in mind. If the advisory board was created to fundraise, consider whether meeting frequently serves that purpose. If the purpose of the advisory board is to garner attention for your organization, think about whether members need message training or activities to keep them engaged and knowledgeable about your work.

In addition, respecting, honoring and recognizing the work of the advisory board is crucial. If the experience isn’t rewarding in some way for board members, they’re likely to feel ignored or superfluous. Make sure your organization gives advisory board members a meaningful level of responsibility and a clear voice.

This article draws on the expertise of Grace Davies, a Minneapolis-based attorney with special interest in product liability, medical malpractice and employment discrimination.

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