What is an Advisory Board and Should We Have One?

Recently several Blue Avocado readers have written to say their organizations are considering creating advisory boards or advisory committees of one kind or another. At the same time, others write to ask how to disband troublesome or obsolete advisory committees. Here are some guidelines for advisory committees, as well as a sample letter inviting an individual to join such a group:

The board of directors of a nonprofit organization is its legal, governing body. In contrast, an advisory board does not have any formal legal responsibilities. Rather, an advisory board is convened by the organization to give advice and support.

Probably the most common experience nonprofits have with advisory boards is that they invite people successfully onto such a board, and then fail to have that board accomplish much of anything. So it's worth a few minutes to consider the options for doing it right, and even whether to do it at all.

There are four common types of nonprofit advisory boards, illustrated in the following examples:

  • Fundraising: Organization W wants to invite prospective donors onto some kind of official body, but it doesn't think these individuals would be good board members. In some cases the individuals probably don't have the time or interest, and others are not seen as being appropriate (for a variety of reasons) for the board. By creating an advisory board, W hopes to engage donors in a little advice-giving and a lot of donating and fundraising.
  • Programmatic: Organization X, in contrast, has a board comprised mostly of wealthy board members who see their role as primarily one of fundraising. But most of the board members are not well connected to the low-income client population, nor are they experts in AIDS -- the work of the organization. As a result, X convened an advisory board composed of low-income clients, social workers, and medical personnel. The advisory board meets four times a year to give input, to react to ideas from staff, and to make suggestions. Several staff and board members attend each meeting. For example, the last advisory board meeting focused on developing a policy around case management for dual-diagnosed clients. X has also convened a Youth Advisory Board. Other advisory groups might include a Disabled Access Advisory Task Force or a Latino Community Advisory Council.
  • Letterhead: Organization Y wants to use the names of prestigious friends on its letterhead but doesn't expect or demand any other involvement. The "Advisory Council" exists only as a heading under which these names can be listed; it's helpful to Y and it's easy for individuals to lend their names as supporters to a nonprofit they admire and like.
  • Fiscally sponsored: Organization Z is an artists co-op that doesn't have its own 501(c)(3) status, but works under the fiscal sponsorship of another organization. As a result of not having incorporated separately, Z cannot legally have a board of directors. Its advisory committee acts in many of the same roles that a board of directors does but doesn't have the same legal responsibilities. If Z decides to incorporate separately, the advisory committee members will form its board of directors.

Guidelines for having advisory boards

1. Develop a written description of the responsibilities, activities, and limits on authority of the advisory board, and share this description with prospective members.

2. Distinguish between the role of the governing board of directors and the advisory board. For example, a board of directors hires the executive director of the organization; an advisory board may draw up a suggested list of qualifications for the person or people hiring the executive director. A board of directors can direct staff to take certain actions; an advisory board can suggest actions to staff and can be angry if its suggestions aren't taken, but an advisory board can't compel staff to act. An easy way to communicate this distinction is not to use the term "board" for the advisory group; instead use "committee" or "council."

3. Consider asking a community leader to chair the advisory committee and act as a spokesperson for the organization in the community. Alternatively, have a board member lead the advisory committee.

4. If the main purpose of the advisory board is fundraising, consider a different name such as "Friends of X" or "Community Leadership Council." If you don't have volunteer leaders who will take responsibility for organizing and driving this group, delay creating it until you have found such leaders.

5. Don't establish an advisory board if you cannot commit the time and thought to getting results from the group, and to making the experience meaningful and rewarding for members. Too many organizations have erred by creating advisory boards where members felt ignored, or as if they were being asked for donations in the disguise of being asked to advise.

6. Don't be afraid to disband an advisory board that isn't achieving what it was established to accomplish. Consider instead asking members to be "Advisors" or a "Council of Advisors," both terms that give a mutual sense of affiliation without implying group meetings.

Sample invitation to join an advisory committee

Dear ___________,

We would like to invite you to join the Advisory Council of WXYZ. This council consists of thoughtful community leaders who meet three times per year to advise the WXYZ board of directors and staff. We admire the work you have done with children in the SW neighborhood of our city, and we would be very grateful to have your thinking as we go forward.

The responsibilities of Advisory Council members are to:

  • Attend three meetings per year, each held on a weekday from 8:00 am to 9:45 am
  • Contribute your expertise and thinking to the current and future work of WXYZ
  • Be available for four to five telephone calls each year from staff seeking advice
  • Allow WXYZ to publish your name as a member of the Advisory Council

In return, WXYZ promises you:

  • A delicious breakfast three times a year and meetings that start and end on time
  • A complimentary membership during your term on the Advisory Council
  • An appreciation of your time and a commitment not to abuse your time or your generosity
  • Advisory Council terms are for two years.

Enclosed is a roster of current Advisory Council members, and a schedule of meetings for the coming year.

One of us will be calling you within the next few days to answer your questions and to give you a personal invitation to join the council. Thank you, and we look forward to talking with you.

Signed, Chair of the Board of Directors and the Executive Director

Jan Masaoka is Editor of Blue Avocado and author of Best of the Board Cafe, Second Edition, from which this article is adapted. She is an advisory board member of BoardSource, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Asian Americans for Community Involvement.

Comments (26)

  • LOVED the Advisory Council article from start to finish, from the sample invitation, to relationship to the Board, from purpose to perks. Thanks. I am trying to get an intensive drug rehab non-medical program for women started for our our non-profit.. Any suggestions for types of folks to include for an advisory committee? So far, I have thought of 2 social workers, credentialed in drug rehab, 1 mental health executive and would like a recovered addict, but need advice about how to recruit one. Any suggestions?. Sally

    Aug 24, 2010
  • Hello Jan, Great article!
    Another consideration in forming an Advisory Board, especially if it is intended to be a "Letterhead" or fund development group, is to consider in advance what the effect will be on your governing or "working" board. Will it make your regular board inspired or feel inferior? Will they work harder or slack off, thinking someone else is taking on the lead, especially in fundraising?

    Some organizations simply do not ask enough from their existing boards and do not provide them with the training they need to be good fundraisers. Which as we all know, is a learned not innate skill!

    In one organization we worked with, the formation of a high profile advisory board made the governing board feel "less than". The organization actually could have attracted high level community leaders to serve on their board of directors but did not have the confidence to ask them for that kind of commitment.

    It is important to revisit and possibly revise the roles and responsibilities of the governing board prior to developing a new advisory board.

    And for staff, remember that another group of volunteers is another group that needs "care and feeding". Literally. Do you have time and resources to support this new group in a way that they can serve as effective advocates, representatives or fundraisers, in addition to the staff support that is essential for a successful governing board? Working through these issues in advance in tandem with Jan's great suggestions can prevent problems and build good relationships with both boards, should you proceed to develop an advisory group.

    Maria Gitin
    Maria Gitin & Associates

    Aug 24, 2010
  • In one organization I have the privilege of serving, its Advisory Committee is made up of former presidents. It does not hold regular meetings and is only asked to provide guidance in case of a change in overall focus or mission. Its weakness is a lack of routine involvement, such that they may not have a pulse of the board. Paul Rosenberger Decatur, IL

    Aug 24, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Hi guys: just to pass along what many board members say about advisory vs governing boards, "I will not serve on an advisory board because what they really want is a gift." I interviewed highly engaged and generous board members across three continents for the book, "What Nonprofit Boards Want", published by Wiley in May 2009. Those fairly new to board experience and those who do not want to be responsible for the fiscal and strategic success of an organization may want to participate and would be good at doing so, the board members I talked with say. Hope this may shed just a different light.

    Aug 25, 2010
  • I found this article very helpful and have already been sharing it with colleagues. The idea of forming an advisory committee as a sort of board-in-training/waiting for a fiscally sponsored organization is excellent. I think that the "programmatic" type of board has many powerful permutations for stakeholder engagement. One routine deployment might be a quarterly advisory group for membership organizations. I usually encourage either a separate body for a range of stakeholders (clients, agencies, partners) and one for specific groups with deeper connection, such as a parents committee for a private school. Of course, as with governing board committees, there can easily get to be too many advisory bodies! One concept excluded from this very helpful presentation is the value of advisory committees as a method for spotting potential future governing board members. I don't know if works all that well in practice but it always sound good. Steve Klass Klass Strategies www.klass-strategies.com

    Aug 26, 2010
  • Jan, A great article. A few additional points: 1. Advisory councils are a way to get politicians involved who often can't be fiduciaries. 2. Just as the board of directors needs to complete an annual evaluation so does the advisory council. Needs change, the advisory board may need to change also. 3. Whatever the purpose of the advisory council, I always start with a SWOT analysis. Even with staff and a fiduciary board there still maybe gaps that need to be filled and using the advisory council could be the solution. Susan C. Hammond www.advisoryboardkit.com

    Aug 30, 2010
  • I especially like your first point, Susan! Thanks for adding value to readers. Jan

    Aug 30, 2010
  • At One Street, our Board of Advisors is a critical part of our leadership team. Each of them is called on regularly to offer their particular expertise for our international bicycle advocacy efforts, ensuring that all of our programs offer the most successful models. This active service, along with regular updates, keeps them involved in the operations of One Street. With this in mind, actively serving on the Board of Advisors for more than a year is a requirement for service on the Board of Directors to ensure that members of the Board of Directors fully understand and support the organization before they begin. This integration of the two boards has worked out very well for us. Sue Knaup www.OneStreet.org

    Aug 31, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Incredibly helpful!! Thanks so much.

    Oct 05, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Great ideas ... will help me a lot as an ED with the suggestion to the board to have an advisory board

    Oct 21, 2011
  • Very helpful. My organization is pondering a question still begging an answer. If an individual is a member of several advisory-oriented groups associated with the organization, each playing a rifferent role, does that individual's name appear under each group in the letterhead or only the senior group? We have yet to find definitive guidance on this issue. Can you help? G. G. Meyers, Honolulu

    Oct 22, 2011
  • My two cents: if the reason for having names on letterhead is to bring the credibility of the individuals to a group, then why diminish the credibility? Use the names that will help bring clout.

    To tell the truth I find that letterhead is increasingly less important as so much communication is now done online. Online there's the space not only to list the names of the individuals, but perhaps have a sentence from each one about why they feel the group is important. Stay focused on whether using a person's name is going to help in the given situation, rather than get stuck on rules or worrying about repetition. At least that's my view. Thanks for writing, GG! Jan

    Oct 22, 2011
  • Anonymous

    interesting article. Thanks

    Nov 29, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Very helpful, especially the four themes fundraising, programmatic, letterhead and fiscal. Thanks

    Nov 29, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I'd like to thank everyone for their comments and to Jan for the original article. I'm in the midst of helping two theaters in the same southern city create or formalize their advisory boards, and this is VERY USEFUL. thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    May 27, 2012
  • Anonymous

    This is an extremely helpful post and I will use it as the basis to create the plan for our CAC. Thank you!

    Dec 04, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Jan, thanks for your great post! Do you recommend setting term limits for advisory boards? My initial take is that as long as they are engaged and contributing to the organization, there's no need to rotate them off. What do you think? I appreciate any insights you can share!

    Jan 25, 2013
  • Thanks for the nice words? I think that terms -- but not term limits -- are good for advisory boards. Since the overwhelming experience nonprofits have with advisory boards is to do nothing with them after an initial burst of energy, its great that yours is engaged and contributing. Congratulations! Jan

    Jan 26, 2013
  • Anonymous

    This is a wonderful piece of work. Just what I needed. The comments are also extremely helpful. Regards

    May 29, 2013
  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the info! Would it be possible for a CA nonprofit to have their audit committee as an advisory committee?

    Dec 20, 2013
  • Hi, Anonymous . . . In California, if your organization has non-governmental revenue of $2 million or more you are required to have an Audit Committee. (If you go to this page https://oag.ca.gov/charities/faq and scroll down a bit there are FAQs about the California Nonprofit Integrity Act.)

    In most cases, the Audit Committee does not have the authority to act for the board; for instance it does not have the authority to select the external auditor unless the board specifically delegates that authority to it. So in a way, the Audit Committee is advisory if you mean that it makes recommendations to the board rather than acting on its own.

    However, the term "advisory committee" usually implies something less than the above, so I suggest using the term "Audit Committee" rather than "Audit Advisory Committee" or something like that.

    You may know that my "other" job is as CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits (CalNonprofits). Thanks for asking this question! Jan

    Dec 22, 2013
  • Anonymous

    Found the information very useful

    Jan 23, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Hello Jan , This is an extremely helpful article and we will use as well here in Rural Development Initiative here in Rwanda. www.ruraldvpt.org

    Jul 23, 2014
  • For advisory councils, where fundraising is the primary function, what suggestions do you have for conveying appreciation to members and making them feel valued for their contributions in that area? I want them to feel engaged in the substance of our work, after all, that is why they are helping raise money - so we can carry out our mission and make a difference. What are some specific ways, we can make members feel valued for more than just their wealth/connections? In our case, we are an independently funded project of a 501c3 organization. Its Board is of course responsible for us, but not focused at all on our development needs. Since our impact is national, we envision this national council as a way of broadening our base of support to reflect the reality of our impact around the country.

    Jul 24, 2015
  • Great information and most helpful. Thanks

    Oct 21, 2015
  • This information was very helpful. Thank you.

    Jul 12, 2016

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