All nonprofit organizations have boards of directors, but many have advisory boards as well. Unlike boards of directors, advisory boards have no formal governance or fiduciary responsibilities, nor any decision-making authority. Their role is to provide guidance to the executive staff and board members on strategic or tactical objectives.
For example, an advisory board might tackle an important and specific initiative such as a reorganization, a technology overhaul or a capital campaign. More broadly, an advisory board can be a training ground for potential new directors or a place for retiring directors to assume a different role but still provide institutional knowledge and continuity.
Advisory boards can also offer deep expertise in specific program areas or help to establish stronger connections in the communities you serve. Advisory board members can serve as “ambassadors” for your organization and represent your cause on related boards, at events and professional meetings.
In terms of structure, advisory boards should have a primary leader or chairperson, with a staff member or a director attending meetings as a liaison to the organization. Communication between groups will improve outcomes and strengthen your mission.
The advisory board’s mission should be defined — even if it’s vaguely established as a group to assist the board of directors with special projects — to give members an idea of the type of work and time commitment involved. Subgroups of the advisory board can be helpful to address smaller projects.
Of course, once you have an advisory board established, you must be ready to tap into the wisdom of the group and listen to their advice. For committed volunteers, there’s nothing more demoralizing than being asked for input and then being ignored.
To avoid confusion, some nonprofit organizations refer to this group as an advisory council or advisory committee or something that doesn’t contain “board” in the title.