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When an advisory board is the answer (And when it’s not)

Advisory boards can be extremely helpful to nonprofits, but they aren’t magical. They work best when they are used to complement a board of directors that is moving full speed ahead—not when they’re trying to fix an organization with a board that is not working as it should. Furthermore, a nonprofit should consider forming an advisory board only if that is the best strategy for achieving something specific.

Make sure the board of directors is in order first

“Our board won’t raise money, so we’re forming an advisory board to do it,” is a common sentiment expressed in the nonprofit world—but a shaky reason to pursue an advisory board.

A healthy board of directors needs to be actively involved in fundraising. All of its members should give at a level that is sacrificial for them. In addition, some members should also raise money by seeking donors and going on donor calls. If the board of directors feels it’s not their job to donate or raise money, then the advisory board won’t feel motivated to do so either.

“If your board isn’t leading the way in fundraising, you can’t expect your advisory board to follow,” said Beth Finnerty, president and CEO of Skyland Trail. “One hundred percent of our board members donate to Skyland Trail. Our advisory board members are generous donors, but they also give us much through their community support and expertise, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

When the board of directors won’t raise money, it’s usually a sign there is a more serious problem at hand—a problem that won’t be solved by shifting the responsibility to an advisory board, and which may require revamping the main board. This often comes up when a nonprofit is working with the same board they had when they started. If a nonprofit wants to remain successful, it must evolve.

What advisory boards are good for

Advisory boards are best used to supplement the strategic work of the main board or staff. Fundraising can certainly be one aspect, but they may also offer expert opinions on policy, research, science, or other specialty disciplines; provide services in-kind, like communications, event support, or legislative appeals; or serve as ambassadors to specific communities.

A useful advisory board has clearly defined roles that are aligned with the strategic plan. Responsibilities, authority, and measures of accountability should be spelled out, which requires careful planning by and ongoing attention from the executive director. That means an advisory board should only be formed if leadership has the bandwidth to do it correctly.

“Having two boards is a lot of work,” said Finnerty. “I still spend significant time with the advisory board. We’re always working on coordinating communications and providing opportunities for engagement.”

If planned and used well, the advisory board can be an outstanding complement to the other teams within an organization. But just like any team, it requires care and feeding. If members aren’t focused, they can become dissatisfied—and a nonprofit may find they’ve turned a group of supporters into a den of critics.

In short, an advisory board may be the answer when:

●     Your board of directors is a well-run team, made up of people who are willing to give and seek out new donors.

●     You’re in need of expertise in strategic areas or functions like fundraising, communications, or other in-kind services.

●     You need ambassadors to specific communities.

●     You can provide roles that are clearly defined, differentiated from those of the fiduciary board, and aligned with the strategic plan.

An advisory board is not the answer when:

●     Your goal is to make up for a board of directors that is reluctant to participate in fundraising.

●     Your board of directors isn’t running smoothly and effectively, and needs your help to keep pace with the organization’s evolving work and changing market needs.

●     Your leadership team can’t give an advisory board the proper attention.

Mary Bear Hughes is a senior consultant at GCN. 

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