Starting an Advisory Board: Why, Who, and How

Starting an Advisory Board: Why, Who, and How
Winter 2016 by Emily Anthony

Starting an Advisory Board

“We’ve been thinking of starting an Advisory Board . . . should we do it?” As a board consultant, this is a question I get a lot, and my answer is an unsatisfying “it depends.” Because like pretty much everything else in life, how much benefit you’ll get out of an advisory board will almost certainly be a direct reflection of how much effort you put into it. Advisory boards or “resource councils”, as they are sometimes more accurately called, do not run themselves, and to be effective they must be more than just a list of famous names on the side of your stationery. But if you are willing to put the time in, you will almost certainly find that a well-cultivated group of ambassadors who are ready to provide advice or resources can be a tremendously useful thing to have around.

Why Start an Advisory Board?

The first key to success is knowing exactly why you want to have a resource council, and what you hope it might accomplish. Here are a few good reasons you might want to consider starting such a group:

  • You want to stay closely connected to former board members, and leverage their experience as much as possible. Inviting them to be part of an “emeritus” board can be a great way to keep them close after their terms have ended, providing critical historical perspective your current board may lack.
     
  • The ED or board desires a close circle of expert advisors. It can be awfully handy to have a list of smart people that have already agreed to take your call when tricky issues come up.
     
  • You need to expand your reach to different fields or communities. Maybe you’re a social service agency that needs to connect with the medical or legal field, or you’ve recently begun serving a neighboring state. An ambassador group can help you gain a foothold in a new community and open some doors until you are established enough to bring new people on your board of directors.
     
  • You have people who genuinely want to be closely connected to you, who cannot for some reason be on your governing board. It turns out that ideal board member you’ve been courting can’t join because of conflict of interest, or travels 8 months out of 12, or is already chairing 3 other boards. Offering a resource council spot can be a great way to maintain your strong connection despite the “no thanks” they gave to your board invitation.

…And a Few Not So Good Reasons to Create an Advisory Board

If these sound like your real reasons, think very carefully before taking on the big organizational task of starting a new group. There may be better solutions to your problems!

  • We happen to know some famous people, and we’d like to put their names on our letterhead. It can sound like a great idea to leverage the influential people you know, and if you promise them they will never have to do anything they might even say yes. But unless you take the time to engage and cultivate them like you would any other supporter, throwing their names around won’t mean much to anyone, including them. If you really just want to use the name, ask if they will give you a quote about your work to put on your website or materials, and leave it at that.
     
  • We don’t want to “fire” our disengaged and ineffective board members, but we need a place to put them so we can move them off the board. This pretty much guarantees your advisory board will be disengaged and ineffective, don’t you think? Don’t form a group to avoid an honest conversation. Consider instead having a gracious celebration of their service, and then making individualized stewardship plans to meet their needs after their board exit.
     
  • We want to make (some group) feel engaged, but we don’t want to actually invite them on our board because that might challenge or change us. I’ve heard grassroots organizations suggest this about wealthy donors more than once: “We know we need them, but we don’t really trust them, so we don’t want them on our board of directors.” And just as often, I’ve heard it the other way around: “We really want the people we serve to feel included in our process, but how can we fund the program if the board seats don’t go to well-connected people who can make big gifts?” And in either case: “If we were all on the board together, wouldn’t that really be pretty awkward for everyone?” Well, yes. It can be awkward and just plain hard when people from different backgrounds and different communities come together to make decisions on behalf of an organization. How to embrace different viewpoints to make positive change is a subject for a different article . . . but I feel strongly that the answer is not to create a separate group to offer token representation with limited influence. If you are considering starting an advisory board because you don’t think certain stakeholders have the “right” perspective or pedigree to be on your governing board, it’s time to take a serious look at your assumptions and to examine your fears about opening up those seats at the table.
     
  • Starting a resource council seems easier than starting a major gifts program, and we really need to raise some money. The reality is, your new members will only help your fundraising if you are cultivating them, stewarding them, making a compelling ask and thanking them graciously . . . in other words, exactly what you should be doing with any major donor. There are no shortcuts here, and if you think people will give significantly more just because you put their name on a list, I have some disappointing news for you. In fact, sometimes people give less because they have “given you” their name instead. An advisory board can be a great vehicle for major gifts fundraising, but it can never take the place of that hard work.

The Most Common Types of Advisory Bodies – and What to Call Them

Knowing exactly why you are starting a new body will make it clearer who to invite. Are you genuinely looking for advisors, or is cultivating people with capacity or significant influence your real goal? Do you want to draw exclusively from former board members, or do you want to engage other supporters as well? The more the group has a clear purpose, the easier it will be for you to identify the members and plan your activities and communications.

Once you know your purpose and have an idea of your membership, you can determine the best name for this new group. Choose a name that makes sense – don’t call it an Advisory Board if you don’t actually want advice!. Although I have been using “Advisory Board” in this article, it is in fact not a great choice: most organizations want members to be donors and ambassadors, not just advisors, and using “board” implies a legal or governance function that this group will not have. Below are some better examples of names to give you some ideas. Be creative – if you can get a reference to your mission or issue area in the name, more power to you!

  • Resource Council (open-ended but implies a giving function)
  • Ambassadors’ Circle (suggests members will be reaching out to the community)
  • Emeritus Board (if limited to former board members; this is the one situation where using “board” may make sense)
  • Advising Team (if your goal is to connect to professional expertise)
  • Mission-related, e.g. “The Bench” for a youth sports organization

The Most Important “Do’s”: Keys to Success for Starting a Group

OK, you’ve identified your group and your purpose in bringing them together. Now what?

  • DO have member expectations and requirements laid out in writing
    Having clear goals for your group including expectations that your members understand is the single biggest key to success. The expectations don’t have to be complicated and they don’t have to be identical for all, but people want to know what you are asking of them. You can see a sample “job description” you can adapt here. Asking that each member 1) Meet with the ED at least once each year. 2) Make a gift to the organization and 3) Complete at least one other action on behalf of the organization (such as hosting a table, providing advice to the ED, inviting a friend on a tour, etc) seem like good minimum requirements, although some organizations may ask much more.
     
  • DO assign a current board member to be the primary liaison to your group
    Each resource council member needs to be cultivated and stewarded like a special donor or volunteer (which hopefully they all are!) If you assign a governing board member to take the lead in the “care and feeding” of this group (with help from the ED or Development Director) it will ensure that the new members are hearing from current board, and it can be a nice opportunity for your board member to learn about good stewardship with willing subjects. Promote this as a leadership opportunity on the governing board comparable to chairing a board committee.
     
  • DO remember to keep communicating, and asking for help
    In my experience, the most common complaint of advisory board members is never actually being asked for the advice that they had signed up to provide. They’ve said they want to help, so pick up the phone and let them! In addition, “insider” news updates, immediate “good news shares”, and even requests to meet a special need will help make council members feel like part of the family.
     
  • DO offer opportunities to come together, even if you never meet as a whole group
    Think of your advisory board members as your ambassadors out in the world. And while the White House (that’s you!) will to want to keep in close touch with all of its ambassadors, it is really not important that the ambassador to Poland be well acquainted with the ambassador to Chile. For this reason, I don’t particularly see a need for advisory members to meet with each other on a regular basis. But, members do need to stay connected to the organization, and attending an event is a great way to do that. Moreover, in some cases one benefit resource council members may be looking forward to is visiting with the other members, so occasionally providing those opportunities is smart. In addition to personal invitations to special events, I recommend inviting members to occasional board and staff gatherings (perhaps a holiday party or a summer picnic) and selecting one board meeting each year with a meaty topic to invite the whole council to attend.
     
  • DO have a way of saying goodbye
    “I’m not sure if I am still even on that thing . . .” No joke, a lot of poorly cultivated members aren’t even sure if they are still on the list! Since most organizations don’t ask much of their advisory councils, it can be easy to let them fade away. But just as clear expectations will help you run an effective group, having explicit terms and an exit strategy will also keep the group from stagnating. See the Purpose and Expectations document for more details.

An advisory board can be a valuable resource to your organization if you are willing to do the work to make it robust. What’s been your experience with these types of groups?

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