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Cynder Sinclair: How to Optimize Your Nonprofit Advisory Groups

Does your nonprofit use advisory groups? Maybe you call them advisory councils or advisory boards. Some nonprofits think creating an advisory council will solve all their problems, others have no idea what to do with an advisory group, and still others have tried and failed to use this secret resource to their advantage. A few nonprofits actually excel at working with this model.

I recently received the following question on the Ask Cynder section of my website. It’s a question I’ve encountered many times, so I will address it in today’s column.

Dear Cynder: Can you speak to the healthy and well functioning Advisory Board (as opposed to Fiduciary Board)? Typically, how do the roles of chair and executive director interact in the advisory capacity? How do you build a sense of responsibility with this kind of board?

Trying to create an advisory board and then figuring out how best to use it is often a murky and challenging area for nonprofits. I will try to offer some approaches and ways of thinking about advisory groups that might help you find what will work best for your organization.

First, let’s align our terminology. Calling it an Advisory Board can be confusing. People may get it mixed up with a governing or fiduciary board. So, let’s call it an Advisory Council to differentiate it from the Board of Directors.

Next, let’s establish a clear purpose. Often, nonprofits will form Advisory Councils just because it seems like a good idea to have a group of local luminaries on their letterhead or to use as a place to park termed out board members. This is a formula for frustration, confusion, and wasted energy. You must be very clear about why you want to form an Advisory Council, what its purpose will be and who will oversee its function.

Here are some things you can do in preparation to help ensure you build a healthy, well functioning Advisory Council:

» Clearly identify the specific reason you are forming the group.

» Articulate the criteria for membership (for example, will individuals be invited to join because of their specific expertise?).

» Make the group’s charge clear to all members and involve them in the process.

» Establish the reporting structure.

» Clarify the staff and/or board support that will be available to the group.

» Determine the relationship between the Advisory Council, the Board of Directors and the staff.

The nature of the Advisory Council helps determine the role of the executive director and/or board chair. Often the executive staff officer is the one who interacts the most with the Advisory Council; however, there must also be a good connection with the board in order for the organization to benefit from the group’s advice and for the Advisory Council to feel engaged. So, the board chair and other board members are often involved as well.

An Advisory Council is usually formed to fill a gap in expertise with the board and/or the staff. For example, if an organization is preparing to purchase a building they may want to form an Advisory Council comprised of realtors, property managers, city planners and government officials. If a nonprofit board consists of members who are well versed in the mission and has lots of community connections but doesn’t really understand advocacy, they may form an Advisory Council comprised of community leaders with political connections.

Building a sense of responsibility with an Advisory Council can be tricky. The key is to make sure everyone is clear about their purpose, help members feel that their advice is valued by the board and staff, and maintain a lively connection to the organization. For Advisory Councils to be effective, you will need to spend time laying the foundation for their success and making the plan for how members will interact with the board and staff. This takes concerted time and effort but it can be worthwhile.

Here is an example of how the local nonprofit the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation uses this model. This organization has three distinct groups: the Emeritus Council, the Honorary Council and the Advisory Council. Each has its separate role and criteria for membership. Here’s how it works.

The Emeritus Board is comprised of former board chairs. This is especially important because many nonprofits lose track of board members after they cycle off the board; thereby losing a significant source of support. Adding past board members who have been effective contributors to your organization to your Emeritus Council would be a good way to keep them involved. Members of TBCF’s Emeritus Council are invited to the annual meeting and encouraged to make annual and planned financial gifts. They are also invited to act as ambassadors for the organization when they are out in the community. Responsibility for this group is shared by the development director, the executive director, and the board chair.

The Honorary Council at TBCF is comprised of community leaders whose affiliation enhances the nonprofit’s status in the community and contributes to its diversity. Members of this group are encouraged to make annual and planned financial gifts and to act as a ambassadors in the community. It’s also a good idea to invite Honorary Council members to an annual breakfast to update them on the organization’s progress, thank them for their service, and solicit their ideas for improvements; thereby keeping them involved and engaged in the nonprofit’s work. The executive director takes the lead for keeping this group together and the board chair makes a key presentation at the annual breakfast.

The TBCF Advisory Council is composed of community members who will lend assistance as a resource in their specific field of expertise. Advisory Council members are also invited to participate in the strategic planning process, make an annual or planned gift, and act as an ambassador in the community. Members are usually added to the Advisory Council based on the needs of the organization. For example, another local organization which has embarked upon a building project added members to their Advisory Council that include architects, realtors, contractors, attorneys, bankers, insurance brokers, and government officials who can offer advice on the various aspects of the building project. Members are contacted by the executive director on an individual basis depending on the phase of the project. They can also be invited to an annual breakfast to receive an update and gratitude for their service.

With careful planning, your nonprofit can create and utilize Advisory Councils and other special groups like an Honorary Council and Emeritus Council to enhance your mission. It’s a way of drawing your circle wider by including people who can add value without actually joining the board. To be effective, Advisory Councils take time and intention; but it’s well worth the effort if managed with consistency.

— Dr. Cynder Sinclair is a consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She has been successfully leading nonprofits for 30 years and holds a doctorate in organizational management. To read her blog, click here. To read her previous articles, click here. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are her own.

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