Board Cafe: What is an Advisory Board and Should We Have One?

Board Cafe

What is an Advisory Board and Should We Have One?

By Jan Masaoka

The Board of Directors of a nonprofit organization is its legal, governing body.  In contrast, an Advisory Board does not have any legal, formal responsibilities.  Rather, an Advisory Board is convened by the organization to give advice and support.  There are three common reasons why organizations choose to convene Advisory Boards, illustrated in the following examples:

  • Eucalyptus AIDS Services  has a fundraising Board of Directors—composed of wealthy, well-connected board members who are committed to fundraising.  But most of the board members are not well-connected to the low income client population, nor are they experts in the AIDS field.  As a result, Eucalyptus AIDS Services convened an Advisory Board composed of low-income clients, social workers and medical personnel.  The Advisory Board meets four times a year to give input, to react to ideas from staff, and to make suggestions.  Several staff and board members attend each meeting.  For example, the last Advisory Board meeting focused on developing a policy around case management for dual-diagnosed clients.  
  • The Banyan Asian Artists Co-op doesn’t have its own 501(c)(3) status, but works under the fiscal sponsorship of another organization.  As a result of not having incorporated separately, Banyan cannot legally have a Board of Directors.  Their Advisory Board acts in many of the same roles that a Board of Directors does, but doesn’t have the same legal responsibilities.  If Banyan decides to incorporate separately, the Advisory Board members will form their Board of Directors.
  • Along with recreational, senior, and housing loan programs, one of the programs of the Manzanita Community Center is a program called “Living with Breast Cancer.”  Manzanita’s board of directors must be concerned with all of the Center’s programs, and the staff of Living with Breast Cancer want a group from the community that can focus more exclusively on their activities.  As a result, they convened an Advisory Board that meets monthly to advise on the program—but not the finances or personnel—of the Living with Breast Cancer program.

Guidelines for Having Advisory Boards

  1. Develop a written description of the responsibilities, activities, and limits on authority of the Advisory Board.  An Advisory Board needs its own informal job description which spells out how many meetings are held, length of terms, chairs, etc.
  2. Establish a formal relationship between the Advisory Board and the governing board.  For example, at the Manzanita Center above, a board member can be the liaison to the Living with Breast Cancer Advisory Board, attending meetings and communicating between the two groups. Distinguish between the role of the governing Board of Directors and the Advisory Board.  For example, a Board of Directors hires the Executive Director of the organization; an Advisory Board may draw up a suggested list of qualifications for the person or people hiring the CEO.  A Board of Directors can direct staff to take certain actions; an Advisory Board can suggest actions to staff or the board, but an Advisory Board can’t force either to act.
  3. Don’t establish an Advisory Board if you cannot commit the time to preparing for effective Advisory Board meetings and to making the experience meaningful and rewarding for members.  Some organizations have erred by creating Advisory Boards where members felt ignored or superfluous.
  4. Consider asking a community leader to chair the Advisory Board and act as a spokesperson for the agency in the community.
  5. In some cases, an Advisory Board may never meet, but may be a way of recognizing individuals who advise staff and/or the board.  In this instance, make it clear to nominees that there are no meetings, but what their responsibilities are.

Invitation to Join an Advisory Committee

Dear _______________,
We would like to invite you to join the Advisory Council of Parents Act for Children’s Cancer Treatment (PACCT).  This Council consists of thoughtful community leaders who meet three times per year to advise the PACCT Board of Directors.  We have tremendous admiration for the work you have done with children in the SW neighborhood of our city, and we would be very grateful to have your thinking as we go forward.

The responsibilities of Advisory Council members are to:

  • Attend at least two meetings per year, each held on a weekday from 8:00 am to 9:45 am.
  • Contribute your expertise and thinking to the current and future work of PACCT
  • Be available for four to five telephone calls each year from staff seeking advice
  • Allow PACCT to publish your name as a member of the Advisory Council

In return, PACCT promises you:

  • A delicious breakfast three times a year, and meetings that start and end on time
  • A complimentary PACCT membership during your term on the Advisory Council
  • An appreciation of your time and a commitment not to abuse your time or your generosity

Advisory Council terms are for two years. Enclosed is a roster of current Advisory Council members, and a schedule of meetings for the coming year.
One of us will be calling you within the next few days to answer your questions and to give you a personal invitation to join the Council.  Thank you, and we look forward to talking with you.

Tom Lamothe, Chairman, PACCT Board of Directors;
Jennifer Judy, Executive Director

Original publication date: 10/24/2002

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