To Have a Supportive Nonprofit Advisory Board… You Must Support It!
We are big fans of a nonprofit advisory board. Usually we recommend that clients either establish or strengthen them for several reasons:
- Advisory board members can provide incredible wisdom relating to your mission or any situations you may encounter.
- They can open doors.
- They can serve as ambassadors and provide leverage within their social and professional spheres, including their social media networks.
- People invest philanthropically where they are involved.
- An advisory board makes a great vehicle for training future governing board members and keeping them involved.
- It provides a means for involvement that requires less time and responsibility than carried by the governing board—often an ideal spot for former board members.
- It enhances fundraising through board members' own giving and their identification, cultivation and potential solicitation of other donors.
- If carefully chosen, it can add credibility and prestige to your organization.
In higher education, alumni associations are typically advisory boards—except those that hire staff and provide programming. A higher education advisory board—especially at the college or program level—can be useful in engaging both alumni and non-alumni leaders.
In any case, an advisory board should have a clearly defined role—increasing alumni engagement, for example. A higher education institution can, and probably should, have both an alumni and an advisory board. However, it is vital that each board’s role be clearly defined.
It’s also vital that an organization—and especially its leadership—is willing to take advice and is willing and able to support the board. This means regular communication, engagement with the CEO, visibility and recognition for the board, and support. It also means continuity—continuity in when the board meets (scheduled at least a year in advance), its standard agenda, systems and procedures for leadership, and programs. There also should be regular social opportunities for advisory board members to connect with each other.
Because its role is purely advisory, as long as the organization can support it, the board can be of any size. The goal should be further engagement and great counsel from the right people. While an advisory board can have a term of service, it should not usually have term limits.
It’s important to have a chair to present at meetings and help enhance the board’s connectivity. Because there is no policy to implement or governing responsibilities, and with vital systems for continuity in function, we recommend that these leaders serve one-year terms. Your goal is to provide as many leaders as possible this opportunity and recognition, and to give them a stellar experience.
Neglect or improper handling of an advisory board can easily create problems. We have encountered advisory boards with no leadership from the staff and a failure to establish the needed structure and continuity to provide a good experience. The right board members are savvy and will become frustrated with an unprofessional approach. Not paying attention to a blue-ribbon group of advisors and potential funders is a major error.
Consider an nonprofit advisory board or boards if you do not have them. Be sure that you have clear roles and systems in place to support the members. And provide a stellar experience. If you already have an advisory board or boards, take time now for some introspection—and if you haven’t done so recently, ask the board members about their experience with the board and how you are doing in fulfilling your commitment to them.
To be successful, the CEO must be willing to listen to the counsel of advisory board members, understand the advancement function and can provide the leadership and focus to maximize it. With clearly defined roles, the right members and proper support, great things can happen. An advisory board can and should be a vital part of a stellar advancement function.
Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.
Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.
Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.