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The Uses and Abuses of Nonprofit Advisory Boards

My clients often ask me whether they should form an advisory board. Or, if their organization already has one, they wonder how to get more value from it. They complain that the members are simply names taking up space on letterhead. Why did they bother forming one in the first place?
The key to a successful advisory board is remembering one word: ADVISORY. As with a corporate advisory board, the primary role of a nonprofit advisory board is “advice.” It is not money-giving or friend-raising—or any of the other jobs you expect your board of directors to do. In other words, the advisory board is not an extension of your board of directors or a repository for board candidates who did not make the cut.
Most nonprofits need advice from experts in their fields of endeavor, whether health policy, education, or poverty reduction. The quality of their work depends on it, and experts generally like it when you ask their advice. If they don’t, move on to people who do.
Here are two questions to ask before you decide to create a permanent advisory board:
  1. Do we have the resources to adequately support the advisory board; provide its members with information and updates; and perhaps visit them periodically to remind them of the good work we do?
  2. Will it really benefit our image to have those names permanently associated with our organization? (Just because everyone else has an advisory board doesn’t mean you have to have one.)
Once you have that advisory board, be prepared to work hard to keep its members engaged. Advisory board members are usually high-powered, in-demand experts who are doing you a big favor by lending their name to your organization. Remember, they are not getting paid the way they would be if you were a corporation.
Do not expect them to return phone calls or respond to email right away. You must find ways to keep their enthusiasm for your organization high so that, once or twice a year, you can ask them to support your grant application to a particular foundation or answer that critical question that means the difference between a program succeeding or failing.
Should you ever try to get your advisory board to meet in person? Maybe not. If you have a topic where you need input from all advisory board members, and it would be best if they were discussing it together, by all means facilitate some sort of exchange. These days, with technology, there is little need for people to come together in person. Would it be nice if they became friends? Of course, it would. But it is not your job to facilitate this and can mean a lot of wasted energy.
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