Advisory Boards and Other Bodies: Yes or No and Why or Why Not?

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Do you have an advisory board? Do you wish you didn’t? Do you want some kind of community council to engage people? Do you need a place to put those special people who don’t want to be on your board? Or how about those people who you need to put someplace but who you don’t want on your board? Are you desperately hoping to get more people to help you raise money? Do you want important people to put on your letterhead, hoping that will help you raise money?

Okay, stop right now. Don’t invent anything yet. Don’t set up some advisory group just yet. Take a deep breath. Think carefully. Be real clear about what you want to accomplish and how best to do that. Too often, we leap to the answer without thinking carefully. If you answered yes to the fundraising question above, then I bet you don’t really want an advisory board or a community council or a new group of volunteers or whatever. I bet what you really want is to raise more money.

Maybe you want to get good advice from wise people. And with little thought, you figure a community council is a good idea. Or maybe you want to show key people that you involve other key people. So you invent a group and maybe put them on the letterhead.

Maybe you want something else entirely, but my point is this: don’t pick an answer before you figure out what you’re trying to accomplish. Don’t pick an answer before you’ve identified all the challenges and opportunities from various possible answers.

Start With What You Already Have: Examine Your Board of Directors

First, let’s look at one group that you already have: the board of directors. Despite all the hassles, a board does important stuff. You know, that corporate governance stuff. (Please make sure your board is doing corporate governance. Too many people in the nonprofit sector don’t know what that means!) So you have to have a board, but do you want to have another group? Here’s a question to ask yourself: Do you like training volunteers, be they board members or service volunteers or fundraising volunteers or…? Do you like following up with them and making sure they do the right stuff the right way? How about firing them? Because sometimes some volunteers (including board members) will have to be fired.

You have to manage and enable your board to do the right stuff in the right way. (Read my previous columns about enabling here. I find enabling to be a weak link in too many nonprofits. Too few staff really knows how to enable the board and its members to do governance. And too few staff knows how to enable volunteers to participate in fundraising.)

Do you love enabling your board of directors? Do you revel in the challenges of working with a group, managing group dynamics, and helping the group understand group decisions and what is expected of the individual members of the group? How about stopping the board and its individuals from micromanaging? Knowing enough about governance to help the board do governance?

You have to have a board, but you don’t necessarily have to have other groups. Do you really want another group to manage and coordinate and engage and… do you?

Advisory Groups vs. Individuals: Who Can Best Accomplish Your Goals?

I have another question for you: is what you want to do best accomplished through a group of people? Or is what you want accomplished better done by individuals? The primary point of a group is to bring people together to talk, explore, argue, disagree, offer insights, and learn together to produce meaningful results and impact. That’s what a good board does. That’s what effective board committees do. On the other hand, maybe what you really want is assorted tasks completed on your organization’s behalf. If so, there isn’t really much of a purpose for a group

So much to think about. So much to figure out before you invent anything. As an executive director or fundraiser, I want to talk with lots of different people. I want to engage different people in different ways. This doesn’t always have to be through a group. For example, when I was the chief development officer at Trinity Repertory Company, I wanted individuals to help make personal solicitation calls every single year. With 500 individual and corporate prospects, I needed about 75 volunteers. I recruited 10 team captains and they each recruited 7 volunteers.

The solicitors solicited. Everyone met together only once to select prospects and talk about key messages. Then the solicitors went off to do their work. There was follow-up and reporting and blah blah blah. You know the drill. But the bottom line: they were individuals doing a task. I managed individuals doing individual work. I was not managing a group and helping to create meaning for that group. I was not having conversations with that group and garnering their thoughts and advice and…oh wow. Happily, I was not doing all that work.

I expect executive directors to reach out and chat with lots of different people in the community. I expect them to meet with the mayor to talk about stuff, to reach out to that smart business owner for her insights, to pick the brain of the young entrepreneur. Whatever. Whomever. Whenever. This process involves individuals talking with you about your organization. This isn’t a group. Why would you want a group? Why do you need a label and a format?

Asking the Right Questions in Considering Whether to Establish a Group

Still, sometimes a group is exactly the right answer. But not until you’ve asked the right questions and explored the challenges and opportunities. Consider, for example, the following questions:

  1. What are you trying to accomplish? What is the problem you are trying to solve? What opportunity are you trying to exploit?
  2. What do you need to help you accomplish that which you are trying to accomplish?
  3. What is the concept of the potential group and how might a group help? What would be the nature of the group’s work?
  4. What is the concept of an individual(s) doing task(s)? What would be the nature of this work?
  5. What are the challenges and opportunities to design, facilitate, and manage a group? Do we have the capability (skills) and capacity (time, human resources, etc.) to serve the group well – and have the group serve us well? Does a group add sufficient value to justify the investment? Or, should we design a process and systems to engage individuals to do tasks?

My next column will provide some tips for using groups – but only if you are darn sure that a group is the best possible avenue for doing what you want to accomplish!

  • Eugene Fram


    A very important point for all nonprofits:

    “Despite all the hassles, a board does important stuff. You know, that corporate governance stuff. (Please make sure your board is doing corporate governance. Too many people in the nonprofit sector don’t know what that means!)” They focus on operational minutiae. instead of policy and strategy. Some may benefit by take a glance at these sites.

    Blog site Book:

  • Susan C Hammond

    A lot of good questions. I hope they don’t mask the real point of your play-off know what your goals are. The process I use and share in my book the Advisory Board Kit starts with goals and proceeds from there.

    I hope people know that an advisory board is a great way to evaluate prospective members of their legal board. I am involved with a young nonprofit whose ED is using her advisory committee, as she calls it, for just that. Advisory boards can also assist overworked EDs with no more bandwidth develop key staff.

    Susan C Hammond

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thanks for contributing these resources in response to the column. Keep talking and exploring, colleagues!