The Role of the Advisory Board: Do We Really Need One?

Recently I received a question about the role of an Advisory Board. A reader inquired as to whether this group is worth the effort it takes to form; to convene meetings; to provide a worthwhile experience; and to have these people identified with the non-profit organization. If it is worth the effort, how do the organizations provide the group with a role that has meaning to it and has impact on the agency?

I view an Advisory Board as an asset to the non-profit organization, the board of directors, and specifically to the chief executive officer or director of the agency. The Advisory Board is a way to involve those people who have skills and knowledge that are valuable for the non-profit. There are times when it is helpful to have some people identified with the organization who may not be available to serve on the board of directors.

There are many ways people can contribute to the development and growth of the non-profit. In addition to being an active and involved member of a board of directors there are some people who are prepared to share the experience and understanding without taking responsibility for the governance of the organization. A position on the Advisory Board is a perfect place for the person who wants to volunteer in terms of their understanding of issues and the development of services to the community, among other expertise that is often needed by a human service organization.

This does not mean it is a list of people whose names appear on the stationery and who are not involved in the organization. This approach not only insults the people but also has the potential to damage the reputation of the organization. When a person is listed as being affiliated with an organization and he is then asked a question about the agency’s purposes or services and answers, “I was asked to lend my name as sign of support.” This response can lead to questioning the credibility of an organization. If a decision is made to convene an Advisory Board then the effort should be made to develop a statement of purpose; an agenda; a schedule of meetings; and to be clear about the group’s status in the organization.

It is suggested that the organization’s By-Laws contain a paragraph establishing the Advisory Board and stating the purpose within the organization. The section also needs to address topics such as membership, minimum number of meetings per year; duration of the meetings; and limitations on the role of the group on the organization. It would strengthen the Advisory Board to have definitions similar to governing boards dealing with job descriptions, calendar of activities, conflict-of-interest and ethical guidelines policies, for example.

Advisory Boards generally do not make policy decisions or become involved in the governance of the organization. The name captures the true purpose, to provide advice and counsel to the organization through the board of directors, AND possibly, the CEO. However, the members need to know that their deliberations are heard by those involved in decision-making in the organization.

This not only provides a formal role for the Advisory Board but also clarifies its relationship to the board of directors. At the same time that the By-Laws are composed there can be a statement calling for the appointment of at least one member of the board of directors to the Advisory Board. Having a member of the board of directors serve on the Advisory Board provides a direct link between the two groups and provides for a way for the board of directors to learn about the Advisory Board’s deliberations and their thinking about issues that they discuss. It also insures that the Advisory Board has a way of letting the board of directors know what they are thinking about.

In thinking about the Advisory Board’s membership, it could include retired business executives, experts in the specific services provided by the organization, professionals from other non-profit organizations, civic leaders who do not have strong political affiliations, among other people. The candidates should be people who can benefit the organization through sharing their experiences, perspectives and expertise on an occasional basis.

Advisory Board meetings needed to be well organized and have a clearly stated agenda, like the board of directors meetings. People should feel their time is being well used and their opinions are being solicited. Materials should be prepared in advance and sent to the attendees so they know what is expected of them at the meeting. It also helps to report to them on any new developments that are a result of their discussions. At the very least they will receive a report from their representative on the board of directors.

There are a number of ways to further develop and strengthen the non-profit organization. Setting up and facilitating an Advisory Board is one tool that is available to the CEO and the board of directors. It can enhance not only the standing of agency in the community but also the functioning of the non-profit through the valuable guidance and counsel received from the Advisory Board. When it is done right, it is well worth the investment.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.