Many nonprofit organizations have one or more advisory boards. As the name suggests, advisory board members are volunteers who provide advice to and share insights with the organization's leaders. Advisory board members are typically individuals who are passionate about the work the nonprofit does. Many are leaders with companies that provide significant financial or other types of support to the organization. Some are simply interested individuals who want to go beyond basic volunteerism.
Advisory Board vs. Board of Directors
An advisory board is not the same thing as a nonprofit organization's board of directors (BOD). Both types of groups are made up of volunteers who generously share their expertise to help the organization for set periods of time (terms), but they do not serve the same function. For an organization to receive tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), a BOD is generally required. This is not the case with advisory boards, which are not mandatory.
- Nonprofit BOD - A BOD's primary function is governance. BOD members have fiduciary responsibility and make important decisions on behalf of the organization. BOD members have to vote to approve many key organizational decisions, including the budget and other important matters related to strategy, direction, and fiscal responsibility.
- Nonprofit advisory board - Advisory board members do not make decisions for the organization. The members of an advisory board do not have voting power like the BOD members do, nor do they have fiduciary responsibility. In addition to sharing advice, advisory board members do usually play a role in raising money for the organization. However, they don't have a say in how the organization's resources are used.
Advisory Board Roles and Responsibilities
The roles and responsibilities of advisory boards are not the same in every nonprofit. Nonprofits form advisory boards to gain expertise and insights from people who have knowledge that will benefit the entity and its work, and to strengthen their relationships with people who will champion the cause to the larger community. Some organizations have multiple advisory boards, each serving a different purpose. The roles and responsibilities of advisory boards often include things like:
- Fundraising - Advisory boards often seek to raise money on behalf of the organization. Advisory board members often seek new donors or reach out to previous donors to ask for additional support for capital campaigns or major gifts.
- Specialized expertise - Nonprofits tend to have a small staff, so they may need expert insights. For example, a nonprofit without an in-house information technology (IT) team might form an IT advisory board to provide advice in this area.
- Special project guidance - A nonprofit that is taking on a special project might put together a special purpose ad hoc (temporary) advisory board to provide advice and expertise related to the endeavor.
- Community insights - A nonprofit might put together an advisory board made up of individuals in the population(s) that it serves. This can help provide unique insights into how to better serve the needs of its constituents.
- Visibility/credibility boost - Some organizations invite celebrities, politicians, experts, or other high profile or high-status individuals to serve on their advisory boards. This can help boost the organization's overall visibility and/or credibility.
- Leadership development - Engaged volunteers who are identified as high potential future leaders are often invited to serve on an advisory board. The experience they gain there can help groom them to become BOD members in the future.
- Continued connection - Nonprofits sometimes invite former BOD members to continue serving in an advisory capacity. This helps keep them engaged, but without having as many specific responsibilities as when they were on the BOD.
- Donor relations - High-dollar donors, including individuals and business leaders who influence charitable giving at their companies, are often invited to serve on the advisory boards. This encourages continued financial support.
Does Your Nonprofit Need an Advisory Board?
Advisory boards are almost always beneficial to a nonprofit organization in some capacity. If the answer to some (or all!) of the questions below is "yes," then you might want to move forward with forming an advisory board.
- Do the board of directors or company officials need advice in a field outside of their expertise? The board of directors can appoint experts in the field to an advisory board for input.
- Is there an issue that needs unbiased opinions from a non-governing body? An advisory board can analyze and provide answers from an unbiased stance because they have no governing authority over the entity.
- Can the board of directors and staff handle a special project with current resources? If not, an advisory board can provide input, skills, or resources for the special project.
- Would the organization benefit from demonstrating credibility in a particular field quickly? Appointing experts from the field to an advisory board is a fast way to gain credibility in a new field.
- Does the organization need a broader pool of potential board members? Utilize an advisory board as a form of succession planning for future volunteer leaders.
How to Form a Nonprofit Advisory Board
When forming an advisory board for the first time, start by deciding if the group will be ad hoc or standing. Only create ad hoc advisory boards for special events or limited projects. A standing committee is more appropriate when the advisors are needed long-term. Follow these steps to form an advisory board.
- Describe the role of the advisory board in writing by drawing up an advisory board charter that clearly defines the group's scope and purpose, as well as general guidelines and expectations for members.
- Create a set of bylaws for the advisory board that states the duties and limited authority of the advisory board, as well as any requirements that apply, such as term limits or periodic mandatory meetings (if applicable).
- Include a general description of the advisory board duties in the bylaws. This makes sure that both the advisory board and BOD members are aware of the true role of the advisors.
- Identify donors, volunteers, and others who will be invited to serve on the board. Select potential members carefully based on your goals for the advisory board and how their talents or influence align.
- Assign BOD members or executive staff to personally invite prospective advisory board members to join. Personal contact should be followed up with a written invitation (email or letter) requesting an answer in writing.
- Host an initial advisory board meeting to welcome those who accept. Introduce members to the BOD and executive team and lead a discussion about the organization's vision, as well as goals for the group.
- Appoint a chairperson who can lead the advisory board, oversee effective meetings, and act as an intermediary between the formal board of directors and the advisors. The advisory board should meet regularly and have a detailed agenda.
Advisory Board Examples
There are many examples of advisory boards in the nonprofit sector, including governmental entities, charitable organizations, and professional associations.
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB) made up of physicians and other healthcare industry leaders.
- The Global Water Institute has an advisory board made up of activists, scientists, and business leaders who are passionate about ensuring access to clean water around the world.
- The Tennessee Wildlife Federation has an advisory board made up of residents from throughout the state who are passionate about the outdoors and natural resources.
- The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has an advisory board made up of successful business leaders and individuals who work with location-specific chambers of commerce.
- The Society for Human Resource Management has a Membership Advisory Council (MAC) made up of its members and a Young Professional Advisory Council (YPAC) comprised solely of early career members.
Advisory Boards for Nonprofit Organizations
Advisory boards can provide a lot of value to nonprofit organizations. An advisory board with the right members that functions effectively can only be an asset. Nonprofit organizations benefit from advisory boards because members can help find resources to fulfill projects, raise money, and provide much-needed advice and expertise. Those who participate on advisory boards benefit as well, as they gain leadership skills, build stronger networks, and have an opportunity to advance a cause that's important to them.