What Is the Role of a Nonprofit Advisory Board?

Nicholas J Price

To gain a better understanding of the role of nonprofit advisory boards, it helps to have a clear understanding of the role of nonprofit boards. Nonprofit board members focus their meeting time on three basic activities — strategic planning, oversight and fundraising. It’s also important to consider the types of people who are typically chosen to sit on nonprofit boards. A wide range of people may fill the seats of a nonprofit boardroom. They tend to be local people who are either highly active within their communities or who are passionate about the nonprofit’s cause.

Unlike corporate boards, where the qualifications for board members are high, nearly anyone from any walk of life can serve effectively on a nonprofit board. While it’s important for nonprofit boards to have some representation of professionals from the community on their boards, some board members may lack professional skills and experience, and some will be relatively new to board work.

Board members of every kind are expected to give donations to the organization. In the nonprofit realm, board members may not be able to give as much financially as corporate board members. This is another area in which nonprofit boards can garner a little help from community or national philanthropists on an advisory board.

When a nonprofit board is largely made up of non-professional or inexperienced board members, advisory boards can fill the gaps of skills and expertise that the board needs.

Developing an Advisory Board

One of the beneficial aspects of nonprofit organizations is that the states that govern them give nonprofits much flexibility in how they organize themselves. Nonprofit boards have the ability to set up one or more advisory boards according to the unique needs of the organization.

To set up an advisory board for success, each advisory board should have a specific purpose and all members of the advisory board should know what their purpose and expectations are. Advisory boards don’t tend to meet as often as nonprofit boards, so nonprofit boards shouldn’t overlook the importance of working with the advisory board to make sure that their work is meaningful and appreciated. Setting up an advisory board adds a bit of work for the nonprofit board. It’s not uncommon for a nonprofit board director to take a seat on the advisory board to help recruit, monitor and train members of the advisory board. As members rotate on and off the advisory board, nonprofit board members need to update their biographies and the advisory board member list in directories, on letterhead and in other areas.

Advisory board members are held to the same rules for confidentiality as nonprofit board members. A board portal is a useful tool for advisory board members who meet infrequently or via teleconference. Diligent Boards and Diligent Messenger are two products that are part of Governance Cloud, a suite of governance tools for boards of directors. The platforms are secure, fully integrated and feature granular permissions to support internal controls.

Differences Between Advisory Board and Board of Directors

To prevent confusion on both ends, the nonprofit board should develop a written statement that describes the purpose, duties and expectations of the advisory board. Advisory board members and nonprofit board members should be aware of and respect the differences between the two boards. A formal written description of the advisory board should also outline the expectations for the frequency of meetings, rules for teleconference meetings, the intended duration of the advisory board, guidelines for membership and removal procedures.

Nonprofit boards may vote to make the advisory board’s description a formal part of the organization’s bylaws.

One of the biggest differences between a nonprofit board of directors and their advisory boards is that the nonprofit board of directors has formal legal responsibility and full decision-making authority. The board of directors accepts responsibility for hiring, firing and monitoring the organization’s executive director.

By contrast, advisory board members aren’t bound by as many rules and procedures. As their title indicates, an advisory board’s role is primarily advisory in nature. Advisory boards are subject to the control and direction of the board. Nonprofit boards delegate instructions and tasks to advisory boards as needs arise.

Every group needs a leader, and advisory boards are no exception. There are no hard and fast rules for choosing a board chair for an advisory board. The advisory board may choose the chair by a vote of the members, or members may choose to rotate serving as board chair.

Some nonprofit boards appoint a board member to serve on the advisory board, and that person may serve as board chair. Other boards prefer to appoint a strong community leader to the position of board chair and assign the advisory board chair the duty to act as a spokesperson for the organization.

Purpose of an Advisory Board

The main purpose of an advisory board is to appoint a group of volunteers who support the board of directors and are available to give them guidance and advice as needed.

Advisory boards are often composed of professional or wealthy members of the community. Nonprofit boards rely on their areas of expertise or philanthropic networks to fill in the gaps of the nonprofit board.

Types of Advisory Boards

In a perfect world, nonprofit boards can find and appoint people to their boards who have the right composition of knowledge, skills, abilities, diversity and wealth. Unfortunately, this scenario is more the exception than the rule.

Nonprofit boards may set up an advisory board to serve nearly any purpose they have. The following are some examples of advisory boards and their purposes:

  • Philanthropy: donating, networking, advising and fundraising.
  • Client representatives of the organization: provide the client perspective of the organization.
  • Honorary: people with notoriety who can attract attention to the organization’s mission.
  • Programmatic: board members who serve a medical or ethnic population where they have no personal connection.
  • Professional: former governing members and community leaders who offer advice and consultation.

Concluding Thoughts on Advisory Boards

Advisory boards can be a major asset for nonprofit boards. They will be of the most help when both boards keep the advisory board’s purpose in mind and set up meetings according to their purpose. While advisory boards support and advise nonprofit boards, nonprofit boards have a reciprocal responsibility to monitor and support the work of advisory boards. Nonprofit boards need to make sure that their advisory boards have the proper training and adequate communication to fulfill their purpose. Nonprofit boards must show respect, honor and appreciation for the efforts of their advisory boards to keep them engaged and productive.

Finally, nonprofit organizations go through various stages of development. When advisory boards are no longer doing what nonprofit boards intended or needed them to do, it’s time to disband the advisory board. Nonprofit boards can always put advisory board members to work in some other capacity.

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Nicholas J. Price
Nicholas J. Price is a former Manager at Diligent. He has worked extensively in the governance space, particularly on the key governance technologies that can support leadership with the visibility, data and operating capabilities for more effective decision-making.