About Advisory Boards

Ask the Governance Guru
Part 1 in a series of governance posts

Many questions I receive are on the subject of Advisory Boards…

“What is the role of an advisory board? How often should it meet and how does it relate to the main board?”

An advisory board can be used for many different purposes. Let’s start with what it is not: it is not a governing board, It has no legal or fiduciary standing like your governing board does.

What is the role of an advisory board? 

There are many possible roles, depending on what you need. (Additional auxiliary boards may include Honorary Board, Emeriti Board, and other special purpose groups.)

1. Provide professional expertise or community linkages. Depending on your mission, you may want to include a representative from the school district, local government, a mental health professional or other professionals on you advisory board.

2. Keep valuable former board members involved.
Term limits are important in order to bring new ideas and connections onto your organization’s board, but sometimes you really hate to see a board member leave this role! Inviting them to serve on the advisory board is a way to keep them involved while opening up a board seat to a fresh face.

3. Involve top donors or community leaders without the time commitment of serving on the governing board
Let’s face it, a board commitment is time consuming and a strong community leader or philanthropist may not have the time to fulfill all the exceptions required of board members.

How often should an advisory board meet?

This depends on the purpose of the advisory board. Usually twice per year is enough, although it can be quarterly if the role is to provide insight on community issues. These can be special meetings of the advisory board only, or a joint meeting with the governing board.  The agenda can include an update on progress toward goals from the CEO and then discussion about a few areas where the organization is seeking advice and input.  Generally I recommend one year terms that are renewable upon mutual agreement between the advisory board member and the CEO and executive committee. These are not elected positions like the governing board. Be clear as to whether advisory board members are invited to attend regular board meetings or not.
Where does the advisory board fit in our organizational chart?

Advisory board members do not have a vote on board issues.  They are not the legal governing board; their role is advisory.  They are a resource for the CEO. If you keep your advisory board updated, go to them as a group or individually for advice and connections, then you will have a group of strong advocates extending your reach into the community.

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About Susan Suarez

I am a nonprofit management and fundraising consultant. I have 30 years experience in the philanthropic sector including senior level positions in management, fundraising and grantmaking. I started consulting in 2003, working with local nonprofits and with community foundations nationally. My experience as Executive Director of Eden Autism Services Florida, President of the Community Foundation of Collier County, Vice President of Marketing and Development for the Community Foundation Silicon Valley, and Development Director for the American Red Cross in Palo Alto, CA provides a deep background in philanthropy and management to benefit my clients.
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