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FAQs: Nonprofit Advisory Boards

Posted by Stephen Lemire on September 21, 2012 at 10:40 AM

What is an Advisory Board and how does it differ from a Board of Directors?

An Advisory Board is formed to support the Board of Directors and Executive Director. Whereas, the Board of Directors is bylaws-driven and primarily focused on the mission, the Advisory Board is an expert panel that is formed to speculate about the long-term vision, external market influences, and anticipated needs in the field or industry. They are asked to present opinions and make recommendations for the Board of Directors to consider, but not necessarily implement. The Advisory Board has no impact on governance.
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How do we know when we need (or want) to form an Advisory Board?

An Advisory Board can be established as soon as the nonprofit begins to have a sense of identity and purpose (even during the formative stage). The Advisory Board will consider opportunities for growth, new directions for funding, potential market changes, and major policy concerns.
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What is the purpose of the Advisory Board and what are its main roles?

The Advisory Board will offer perspectives, opinions, and viewpoints from outside the organization. They will take a “market pulse”, suggest broad strategic alternatives, consider long-term issues related to the industry, and support funding and policy developments, as needed.
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Who should serve on the Advisory Board?

Members of the Advisory Board should be more senior than the Board of Directors. They should represent different constituencies and alternative perspectives. Examples of Advisory Board members are leaders in the field, policy experts, Directors’ supervisors, and funding representatives.
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How do we proceed to form the Advisory Board?

The Board of Directors should recommend Advisory Board candidates to a subcommittee of Directors or to the Executive Committee. Once vetted, the Directors who nominated candidates should check candidates’ levels of interest and recruit them (without yet guaranteeing a spot). Once approved by the Executive Committee, the candidate should receive a formal letter of invitation from the Board President and nominating Director which spells out the role of the Advisory Board and expectations of its members.
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How often should they meet?

Once a year for a day-long meeting.
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What does the Advisory Board need to be successful?

The Advisory Board needs a manageable package of materials sent to them about two weeks prior to the meeting to help them prepare. This summative material may include a list of recent accomplishments, ongoing projects, examples of promotional material, and a financial summary. At the meeting (in which they must be treated like VIPs), they will need a brief presentation and a strong facilitator. (Ideally, the Board President and Executive Director will fill these two roles.) Describe key policy and funding concerns, current constituents, and pressing needs, issues, and challenges. Then the facilitator can ask pointed questions in support of these issues while allowing for a free flow of ideas. Wrap up the meeting by capturing key points, major suggestions, and recommendations.
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What expectations should be placed on the Advisory Board?

Above all, the Advisory Board members need to know that they are being listened to and that their opinions and ideas will be given serious consideration. (The moment that an Advisory Board member feels that their time is being wasted, they will quit.) The Advisory Board members should leave the meeting knowing that they will be contacted electronically two-three times during the year and may be needed to support funding and policy developments with a letter, phone call, etc.
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Should the Advisory Board members be given “homework” between meetings? If so, what?

Yes, you want to keep the Advisory Board members engaged throughout the year. Realizing that they are very busy, you want to be judicious in your requests between meetings. Get them to agree to receive brief updates a couple times a year which will include strategic questions to respond to. In addition, you want to create avenues for them to suggest additional Advisory Board members, potential funders, and policy concerns.
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Categories: Nonprofits, Board of Directors, Executive Directors

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