By Rebecca Reynolds
Picking up from where we left off with advisory boards last week, we'll continue our discussion of what the nonprofit needs to consider and decide about its advisory board before bringing on any members. To reiterate, all the decisions the nonprofit makes with regard to the role and
functioning of advisory boards should be concisely articulated in the chartering document. The charter creates internal clarity and also serves to inform the prospective advisory board member when the time comes to begin recruiting. As always, setting expectations from the outset makes for a good match between board member (no matter what type of board) and the nonprofit.
Let's take contributions first - should advisory boards be expected to make them? While this is a decision for the particular nonprofit, it’s generally a good assumption that if a potential advisory board member is willing and able to give a major contribution then s/he probably should be on the governing board. This is because the nonprofit wants individuals on the governing board who are highly committed and able to lead in raising money; a major contribution is indicative of both. So, in most cases advisory board members are not expected to donate funds to the organization since what is wanted from them is their advice and stature - a huge stake in the nonprofit is not necessary.
One case where a financial contribution may be merited is for advisory board members who have been outstanding board members, and the advisory board position is used as an honorary position. In such a case, the individual will likely continue their charitable giving and may set an example for other advisory board members. However, this practice is more of a blurring of advisory and honorary boards, which may or may not be a beneficial strategy.
Terms are another question that should be addressed in the advisory board charter. Since the advisory board member’s duties are fairly limited (that is, answer a question or make a connection now and again and lend their name to the letterhead and website), the term may be indefinite. This may best suit the nonprofit anyway since this type of individual is not as easily replaced. Imagine if your organization was able to secure one of the leaders in its field as an advisory board member – would the organization want that individual to rotate off? Likely not. So, as long as the person is willing, and their name and position are in good standing, the nonprofit should have no reason to want to rotate him/her off the advisory board.
Finally, the nonprofit will want to develop a list of prospects for the advisory board. The primary criteria (although there may be others) are:
1. Mission and/or mission support expertise needed by the nonprofit and the willingness to advise
2. Position and standing in the community and/or industry of the nonprofit
3. Willingness to have their name on the nonprofit’s letterhead/website
4. Accessible to supply expertise, advice and contacts as needed by the nonprofit (see below for how often)
5. Not suitable for the governing board (no interest, not enough time, not an appropriate match to other governing board members, etc.)
As to the number of advisory board members, this is also a matter of choice, but a good guideline is too few (less than five) may appear thin and not enough to constitute a board. (If the nonprofit has a few individuals who would make great advisory members, they could be listed simply as special advisors, rather than a board.) While too many members (more than a dozen) may be difficult to keep track of and to find space for in marketing materials. However, some large institutions have quite large advisory boards (as well as a host of other special entities and groups) to create layers and breadth of organizational support. This is an excellent practice, as long as the nonprofit has the capacity to maintain each group and to be sufficiently clear about its role, purpose and functioning.
As for what advisory boards may expect in return for their support of the nonprofit, the nature of the relationship generally indicates limited expectations on the part of advisory board members. That's one distinct advantage of advisory boards. However, since the advisory board member’s role is to give advice, the nonprofit should avail itself of this expertise periodically. The frequency of contact will be up to the individual nonprofit, but remember that if the advisory board member is never called, the individual will likely forget about the relationship or perhaps even take offense at not being asked to fulfill the role. If called upon too often, the individual may find the position an annoyance. (Calling too often is likely a sign that the nonprofit really needs that individual's expertise on the governing board.) Finding the sweet spot of how often to contact advisory board members is up to the individual nonprofit and the type of individuals on the advisory board, but a good rule of thumb is between one and four times per year.
Regarding the use of the advisory board member’s name and affiliation, it should go without saying that there is no margin for error in the nonprofit's getting the name correctly spelled and the affiliation correctly titled. Beyond this, keeping the advisory board member apprised of the nonprofit’s efforts and achievements makes good sense. Any other kindnesses and/or acknowledgments for the advisory board member’s service are at the discretion and creativity of the nonprofit. It is wise for the nonprofit to carefully consider the type of individual it will seek for its advisory board, and then develop a range of possible acknowledgements appropriate to them. (This principle applies to all forms of acknowledgment.) Some research into what other similar organizations are doing is always a good starting point.
All told, advisory boards can be a tremendous asset to a nonprofit, and can be a smart investment in the nonprofit’s time in its early days since the long-term benefits of advice and credibility are incalculable. However, like all boards, advisory boards are generally more valuable to nonprofits that have done the work up front to define and articulate roles and expectations.