Occasionally, nonprofits ask us about the idea of creating an Advisory Board. The hope is that an advisory board would add wisdom, depth, and connection to their work. Equally often, however, community groups already have an advisory board, but when asked about it, shrug their shoulders and tell us it is not serving a clear or connected purpose for their organization.
We wanted to collect a few resources that might help nonprofits consider whether, and how, to create an advisory board- or revive a dormant one!
What is the Purpose of Advisory Boards?
This guide from Compass Point has a succinct description of why your nonprofit might want an advisory board. According to them, the main reasons are:
- To complement a Board that is focussed on fundraising with Board members who have lived experience
- For unincorporated organizations to nonetheless benefit from outside guidance and wisdom
- To group together people on a more focussed service or program area, when the Board is busy with wider, structural questions
They also reiterate one of our feelings about advisory boards:
Don’t establish an Advisory Board if you cannot commit the time to preparing for effective Advisory Board meetings and to making the experience meaningful and rewarding for members. Some organizations have erred by creating Advisory Boards where members felt ignored or superfluous.
Making an Advisory Board Effective
This document from the US Department of Education gives some clear steps for helping to think through the purpose of your advisory board in advance, so it can focussed and clear. For example,
- Ensuring you name your advisory board well. Is advisory Board the right term, or is it a task force or working committee? Naming your group correctly will help keep the purpose clear
- Clarify the scope and decision making of a possible advisory board. What can they make decisions on? With who? What are they responsible for, and where does that responsibility end? If you want more information about the responsibilities of your legal Board of Directors, you can find our worksheet here.
- Will it be inward or outward focussed?
- What resources, time, and staff does this group need to maintain itself?
Reviving an Advisory Board
Recently, we helped a client revive a dormant advisory group made up of people with lived experience. A lack of clarity on the purpose and functioning of the group had meant it had quickly fizzled out the year before. After clarifying a more precise purpose for the advisory group- to help evaluate the existing program the organization runs- we set out intentions for this group, including:
- that the group be genuinely useful to the evolution of the organization’s program
- that the members of the group feel they are contributing in a significant way, and that those contributions are valued
- That they feel empowered to intervene and speak their piece
- That they feel they are also learning and growing as part of their participation
We returned to these intentions as went forward. They helped identify that:
- The group would need training in evaluation to feel well equipped to intervene
- We needed multiple ways for the advisory group to give feedback, including in person, and on paper after the fact
- We needed to make sure the people who would be receiving the feedback from this group were willing and excited to hear it, and therefore involved in the process from the beginning
- That the group would take the time every 3-6 months to discuss how the advisory group was working, and if we could improve the functioning as we went
What experience have you had with advisory groups? Any advice or insight to share?