Should our board have advisory councils?

Besides common administrative advisory committees to help staff members do their work more effectively, many boards of nonprofit organizations can benefit from the formation of an advisory council to provide advice and support. Perhaps a small group of financial experts could advise the board on its endowment investment policies, or the organization might create a council of board alumni to benefit from the continued engagement of its supporters. Some membership organizations appoint an editorial advisory group in the area of publications. Nonprofits undertaking capital campaigns often create a council with high-profile members to encourage contributions from others. Another possibility is to form a council of people who are knowledgeable about or use the organization’s programs so they can help the board monitor results.

First, think through whether one or more advisory councils would help the organization achieve its mission. Even if it might never need to convene as a group, an advisory council can provide added credibility as well as access to special expertise. Its members bring new contacts and networks within the community, along with the possibility of financial contributions. A council may also serve as a training ground for new leaders. Often, council members develop so much knowledge of the organization and interest in its activities that they become prime candidates for future board service.

However, advisory councils require an investment of time and effort usually by the chief executive, who often serves as the liaison. Some advisory council members may not be seen by all as a positive association for your organization or may try to compete with the board in wanting to make organizational decisions. You can minimize such risks by following these suggestions.

Set guidelines for creating advisory councils. Both the board and the staff should have the authority to create advisory groups but one group or person should not impose an advisory mechanism on another. The board has the prerogative to set parameters for advisory groups, such as approving their budgets. The board itself may decide to name one or more formal advisory groups, particularly to help them link to a larger, more diverse constituency.

Choose an appropriate name. Avoid names that use the word board, which can lead constituents to confuse advisory groups with the governing board. The name instead might reflect the purpose of the group or emphasize the level of expertise and leadership qualities of its members.

Describe the group’s role. Create a written description of each advisory council’s purposes and accountability. Clarify that the group does not make final decisions for the organization; by definition, it has an advisory role. Some groups never meet as a whole but are willing to be called upon individually or in small groups for specific purposes at different times. Others need to convene regularly to discuss and draft their recommendations.

Establish terms of service. People also like to know what they are getting into when they agree to volunteer commitments, so consider renewable terms. Thank everyone at the end of the term, and invite some to continue.

Provide for formal leadership. Volunteers often respond better when one of their own chairs an advisory council. This additional leadership role is often substantively and politically helpful to the board chair or the chief executive.

Plan for staff assistance. Like board committees, advisory councils often need a staff liaison. The chief executive should select this person or fill the role personally.

Budget for any expenses. If the council convenes in person, the organization should be prepared to pay out-of-pocket expenses for the council members who attend. This can be a sizable budget item. (Note: If the organization does not provide reimbursement, all nonreimbursed expenses related to volunteer service for a 501(c)(3) are tax deductible.)

Provide appropriate publicity. Many advisory councils are designed to give constituents, current and potential donors, foundations, and other organizations more confidence in the organization. Giving public recognition to these people and their efforts is certainly acceptable, but guard against providing more publicity than is warranted.

Whatever their area of expertise, advisory councils work best when the board is clear about the councils specific roles and responsibilities from the start. Whatever the advisory council’s charge, its members need to understand the limits of their authority; specifically, they can suggest actions for the board to take, but the board is under no obligation to implement their recommendations.

SUQQESTED ACTION STEPS

1. Board members, brainstorm for ten minutes about areas within the organization board or staff where outside advice might be used effectively.

2. Chief executive, interview the chief executives of five organizations that have advisory councils. Summarize their experiences for other board members to discuss.

3. Board members, terminate an advisory council that no longer serves a purpose.