Why establish an advisory council/group, board emeritus council, or other such non-governing body? First, let’s talk about what these bodies are, or can do, for nonprofits.
What is an Advisory Council?
An advisory council/group is usually a collection of individuals who bring unique knowledge and skills which complement the knowledge and skills of the formal board members in order to more effectively govern the organization. Advisory groups are sometimes formed to provide status to people, for example, retiring CEOs of the nonprofit, exiting board chairs, term-limited board members, or major contributors that have no desire to attend board meetings. Some people form Advisory Groups because they want “recognized names” in the community that they can add to their letterhead with hopes this will draw funds, but they put no formal requests of these people and do not really communicate well with them. Other Advisory Councils are formed to provide subject matter guidance to a nonprofit that might have a scientific or medical mission. These Advisory Councils are just that, experts that help provide data, thoughts and support to the Executive Director and Board on a specific disease, medical condition or technology.
An advisory group does not have formal authority to govern the organization. Unless otherwise provided for in the bylaws it cannot issue directives which must be followed. Rather, the advisory group serves some purpose (or should), that is missing in any other governance structure. The advisory group can be standing (or ongoing) or ad hoc (one-time) in nature.
Most governance experts will recommend that you avoid calling this non-governing body a “board.” There is only one fiduciary board and reserving that word for the governing body is best. Some advisory groups feel if they are bringing in the majority of the donations they should be able to make the decisions. Your bylaws shouldclearly define what body governs the nonprofit. Just because someone is the largest donor for a charity should not give them ultimate decision making over the mission.
Clarify What You Want From This Group
For Executive Directors/CEO’s and the Board of Directors you must first ask yourself what you desire from an advisory group. What is your reason for wanting such a group? You must have a clear objective for establishing this group and then its purpose must be clearly defined and communicated. Too often the group ends up becoming a long list of names on the nonprofit’s letterhead of old board members, or “name recognition” people that do not even contribute to the organization financially or otherwise and the fiduciary board has little to no contact with these individuals. Is this really effective? How will the nonprofit benefit from this type of structure? How can advisory groups be ambassadors for the mission if they are never informed about outcomes and metrics?
Things Your Advisory Group Could Do
Good advisory groups are ones that:
• Have a passion for the mission of the nonprofit
• Are willing to be called upon for assistance with resource allocation, introductions to key people or will be advisors to the board or CEO
• Are willing to make a financial contribution to the nonprofit annually
• Will be ambassadors for the nonprofit in their circles of influence
• Are kept informed about key milestones, metrics or accomplishments so they can spread the word about the work of the nonprofit
• Don’t want to attend monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly board meetings, but are willing to attend one annual meeting a year…a State-of-the-State meeting where they can be educated, inspired and engage in discussion about vision and mission
• Serve a key “advisory” voice for medical conditions or diseases to help the nonprofit ensure their services and programs are helpful and effective and that the mission is the primary focus of the nonprofit.
Good boards will draft a charter for their Advisory Group and then ensure all trustees agree with the focus and function of the group. Questions that are clarified in the charter are:
1. What will the size of the group be?
2. Will we have term-limits for this group?
3. Will the group have a chair person?
4. Will the group meet?
5. Who will be the staff liaison to this group?
6. What are the types of things they will be called upon to do?
Communication with Advisory Groups
Good boards and CEOs will make sure to support a communication plan with their advisory groups. Good boards know that they must keep their advisory members engaged and passionate about the mission while NOT burdening them with meetings or too many requests. You must be strategic about how you use them and how you honor them. Ways to communicate with advisory members include:
• Including advisory group members on electronic communication lists for newsletters and event information
• A quarterly letter from the Board Chair and CEO about key activities or metrics meant to inform the member so they are educated and continue to feel inspired
• An annual meeting with the Advisory Group to thank them and educate them on the “state-of-the-state” of the nonprofit and to get their opinion on a key strategy or question facing the nonprofit
• Invitations, with personal notes from the Board Chair or CEO for key events
Before launching an advisory group or continuing with the one you have, be sure you have a clear objective in mind for the use of this group and how they will be engaged and communicated with. Quality advisory groups can add a significant level of leadership and support for nonprofits.
Written by Diana Kern, NEW’s Vice President of Programs for the May edition of NEWs Notes. Join Diana for the final session of our three-part Webinar series – “Making The Ask: Individuals & Corporations.” Register here.