Advisory Boards and Other Bodies: Yes or No and Why or Why Not? (Part 2)

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Okey dokey. Here we are. Ready to talk about that group you want to start. You read my previous column. You answered all the questions at least once. Then you thought some more. And then you answered the questions again.

You are really, really sure that a group, as opposed to using individuals, will add value. You are positive that you have the capacity and capability to make the group work.

So here goes: my assorted thoughts, theories, and advice.

But first, a mini dedication: To all the development officers at MSU.

That’s Michigan State University to all you readers—in case you thought there was some other MSU! I grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, home of Michigan State University. My dad was a professor there. I graduated with my BA and MA from MSU. And 10 percent of my estate goes to MSU.

I was presenting at the AFP Michigan Capital Area Chapter in early March. I sat next to Doug Miller, Director of Development at MSU’s Wharton Center. Doug asked me what I think of fundraising advisory groups for the various colleges.

Here goes: for you, Doug, and your MSU colleagues. Thanks for the idea.

First, if you establish a group, you have to define assorted elements. And these elements have to be written and approved by the appropriate entity, e.g., the CEO or the board or whomever.  You use these written guidelines and policies to define membership. And you’ll use these written materials to screen, qualify, and recruit members to the group.

So what are your answers to these questions?

  1. What’s the purpose of the group? What’s the group’s intended role?
  2. What’s the scope of work for the group?
  3. Given the group’s purpose and scope of work, what kind of individuals do you want to recruit for membership? Consider skills, expertise, and experience. Consider networks and connections. And definitely use a diversity lens.
  4. What are the performance expectations for the members of the group?
  5. What kind of support will you provide to the group and to the individual members of the group?
  6. How frequently will the group meet? How will those meetings happen? (Remember, the point of a group is to meet and talk!)
  7. What (if anything) will you do with non-performing members of the group? For example, the best boards remove non-performing board members. This standard is necessary because the board is the legal corporate entity accountable for the health and effectiveness of the corporation. And because governance only happens when the board is together, board member attendance and participation in conversation is essential.

Another thought…

Never, ever call a group an “advisory board.”

There is only one board: the corporate governing board. Some organizations then establish an advisory body and call it the advisory board. In my experience, that’s confusing. People are generally not sufficiently knowledgeable about the scope of authority and accountability of corporate governance to effectively distinguish between the “real” board and the “advisory” board.

Even those who’ve served on lots of boards lots of times don’t necessarily understand governance, including the distinction between the board and its members. (And if you’re confused, visit the Free Download Library on my website. And read my NPQ columns and Simone Uncensored blogs about governance.)

So I choose to use the term “board” only for the corporate governing board. To call something an “advisory board” is simply too confusing. If I feel that the organization will benefit from a group of people, I use the term “advisory council” or “community council.”

Special groups for fundraising

How about fundraising and special groups?

Sometimes organizations set up a special group—outside the board—to help with fundraising. Some organizations set up a separate corporation that raises and holds money, and then gives it to the operating entity.

There are valid reasons for choosing that actual corporate structure, or advisory structure. But assigning the raising of money because the board can’t do it or doesn’t want to do it? That’s not acceptable. That’s unacceptable!

The board is ultimately accountable for the health and effectiveness of the corporation. And the board should not absolve itself of that accountability by delegating it to another entity.

Sure. Right. I’m gonna serve on the special group that raises money. And the board gets to spend it. And the board members don’t have any responsibility to help fundraise.

Bad idea. Inappropriate idea.

Think about fundraising in a big institution like a university, with all those different colleges or departments. Think about fundraising in a big institution with different geographic locations. Think about a capital campaign that wants to reach out to diverse audiences.

For a university, maybe a fundraising committee for the College of Arts and Letters, and the Business School, and the Museum, and more…is a good idea. I think, yes. And each of those separate fundraising committees (or whatever you want to call them … but don’t use the “board” word) is involved to some degree with strategy and tactics, relationship building and solicitation, connecting with networks, etc.

I remember a capital campaign for the San Francisco library years ago. The library set up fundraising committees for different audiences, e.g., gays and lesbians, the Chinese community, etc. Years ago, institutions realized that women give differently than men…different motivations and approaches. Fundraisers realized that different cultures give differently. So an organization might develop different fundraising committees for different audiences.

Go for it. Makes sense to me.

Just make sure that you answer all those questions I posed earlier. And keep in mind the following:

  • You have to clearly communicate the distinctions between the committee’s role and scope of authority and the role and scope of authority of the governing board.
  • You have to effectively enable the committee and its members to understand their limits of authority.
  • Of course, you have to respect, honor, and recognize the work of these groups and their members. And make sure that the official “powers that be” respect, honor, and recognize the groups and members, too.

More importantly, you have to empower the groups you establish. And you have to empower the members of your groups. You have to give them a voice and a meaningful level of responsibility and authority. Otherwise, why would they want to play with you?

From a fundraising perspective, you have to ensure that your board listens to these groups. I don’t mean that the groups meet with the board. But your groups need to know that their commitment and work, experience and expertise are valued by the board and understood by the board.

Your fundraising committees and their members will glean insights and have important observations. Otherwise, why would you have recruited these particular individuals? Make sure that your board and staff leadership (including the CEO and other key staff; deans, for example) hear—and maybe learn from!—the insights and observations of these committees and their members.

From a fundraising perspective, you have to ensure that the board and its individual members also have a role in fundraising. Your groups need to know that board members give and also help raise funds. Your board and its members cannot merely sit on high and expect others to do this work.

So those are my thoughts today. What do you think?



  • Eugene Fram

    Simone: I have seen a separate hospital foundation that was highly successful because the chair was a volunteer with marketing, selling and interpersonal skills. In this case, the board cooperated with the foundation in fundraising. I know that the separate foundation can cause some conflict with the board as to how the revenues might be spent. However, it is an opportunity for large and medium sized nonprofits need to review and possibly try. .

  • Rebecca

    Can you share your Part 1 – wasn’t linked in the article. I appreciated your list of questions to get the group’s role and purpose hashed out.

  • Aine Creedon
  • joeanduid

    Where is Part one of this article. Very interesting topic and helpful

  • Jane Garthson

    Thank you so much for reinforcing what I’ve been advising clients for many years – don’t call any of these groups a board! A board exists to make decisions, not to give advice, so “advisory board” is a complete oxymoron. As you say, there are many other possible terms, and pretty much anything is preferable to confusing the work of the group with that of the governing board.

    Mind you, I have the same reaction to “non-voting members” of boards. If a board is primarily a decision-making body, what’s the point of giving someone all the liability for the decisions and no say? The only reason I ever here is to give the person the right to attend the board meetings, but that can be set out in bylaws or policy without confusing the authority and responsibility of being party to the decisions..