The Outside Advisory Board: Boon or Bother to Nonprofit CEOs?
By: Eugene Fram
I have established or served on a number of nonprofit outside advisory boards. As a result I strongly recommend their usefulness to nonprofit CEOs. The counsel provided by a group of unaffiliated members of the community or industry will, in my opinion, complement the existing board, helping to deliver services or products to clients with greater effect. The objective of assembling such a body would be to seek advice and expertise regarding a current major project or issue and/or to provide ongoing support and guidance to the CEO. Advisory board members have no legal responsibilities, nor have authority to require the elected board or staff to act on its advice. However, when advice is not followed, the CEO has a professional responsibility to show how the suggestions were seriously considered and to carefully report on what had transpired in making the decision process. Too many useful volunteers become disillusioned with advisory committees when this step is omitted.
Following is a checklist of operational issues for nonprofit advisory boards, whether they are new or established ones.
• Seek out people who can bring unique knowledge and skills to areas in which the board and/or staff needs outside viewpoints.
• Consider termed-out directors who maintain interest in the organization. All members of the board should be at a similar executive level.
• Approach leaders in the community whose day-to-day experiences may be far afield, but may have broad strategic backgrounds that can be readily useful.
• Be clear about the rationale for the group, the scope, the frequency of the meetings (3-4 a year is optimal) and the preparation time expected, which should be minimal.
• Let them know why they are being asked to participate and what they might gain in return for serving.
• One of the volunteers should be a designated chairperson to facilitate meeting discussions.
• Meetings should be scheduled far in advance.
• Agendas should only cover policy or strategy topics.
• Work to make discussions meaningful and rewarding for ALL members. Avoid detailed presentations from the CEO. Don’t under-utilize the abilities of the participants.
• Provide a high quality of physical and presentation facilities for meetings.
• Between meetings keep important information flowing to members, indicating that the CEO is considering action based on the discussions. One-page summaries are helpful.
• Be certain to highlight how some suggestions have been helpful.
• The CEO and the chair need to have a post meeting critique to evaluate each meeting’s impact.
• Know when the group has reached its peak conclusions and does not outlive its usefulness.
• The CEO and elected board receive new and substantial recommendations for more effective action based on a consensus of perspectives from a respected body of professionals.
• The CEO is in a position to interact with professionals who have faced similar challenges in other managerial areas.
• Advisory board members gain insight into the nonprofit’s challenges and in fact, may volunteer to participate in other ways e.g. financial resources, tech expertise. Some may even choose to become fully active as board members.
The organization is able to maintain formal relationships with people who have strong status and can be public advocates for the organization in the community or industry.
Dr. Fram, an excellent article. You are right on target in pegging the value of an advisory board. What better place to recruit new volunteer leaders than the group of people who have demonstrated interest in the organization’s ongoing viability.
Thanks for your comment. Also to involve senior strategically thoughtful people who are too busy to accept board responsibilities. The motivation is about three well planned meetings a year at which they feel they are making contributions. In their minds it becomes a worthwhile retrun of their most important asset–time!