An advisory board is a group of talented, experienced, wealthy, or otherwise influential individuals who are invited to provide ongoing advice and support to a nonprofit’s Board of Directors. Members of an advisory board are not typically current members of the Board of Directors, but are volunteers with a passion for the nonprofit who can provide valuable assistance and advice to the governing Board.
Advisory boards are created for many reasons and are known by many names (including honorary boards, campaign cabinets, etc.). In most cases, the nonprofit has influential individuals in its network who don’t have the time to serve on the governing board. In such cases, an invitation to join an advisory board can help to engage the influential person with the nonprofit in a way that is manageable for them and beneficial for the nonprofit.
One example of this approach is the formation of a fundraising advisory board or campaign cabinet whereby members are asked to endorse the campaign and make introductions to potential donors. Another example is an honorary board whereby exceptional former chairs, founders, donors and others can remain connected to the organization long-term.
From time to time, nonprofits fail to clearly delineate an advisory board’s role. In such cases, the advisory board members may misunderstand their authority and hard feelings can develop. We have even seen organizations that purport to have two boards without making clear which board is actually responsible for governing the organization. This is confusing, often leads to disputes, and is potentially damaging for the nonprofit and its constituents.
To properly create and utilize an advisory board, we recommend nonprofits take the following steps:
- Develop a written description of the responsibilities of the advisory board members as well as how often it will meet, length of terms, etc.
- If an advisory board position is meant to be an honor rather than a position with an active role advising the nonprofit, make sure this is clear to all members in the beginning.
- Assign a liaison between the advisory board and the Board of Directors. This may include designating a board or staff member as to attend advisory board meetings and make reports to the Board.
- Don’t establish an advisory board if you cannot commit the time to preparing for effective advisory board meetings and to making the experience meaningful and rewarding for members. Otherwise, advisory board members may feel ignored or superfluous.
Ellis Carter is a nonprofit lawyer licensed to practice in Washington and Arizona. Ellis advises tax-exempt clients on federal tax matters nationwide.