Recently I had a long conversation with a CEO client of mine. The topic of our session: her advisory board.
Her question was straightforward enough: Who should serve on our advisory board?
She then began to rattle off names – suggesting the founder, former board members.
I held up a metaphorical stop sign and asked her to tell me the purpose of her advisory board. She was stumped.
She said something like, “I’m not totally sure – I think the organization uses the advisory board to connect valuable folks to the organization who can’t afford the fundraising obligation.”
You know, personal giving or solicitation – what is commonly known as the ‘give/get’.
So I gently pointed out that we can’t identify the ‘who’ until we figure out the ‘why.’
And it goes further than that. You can’t talk about the ‘why’ until you figure out the ‘should’. Should an advisory board even exist at your organization?
Let’s get some clarity here. Advisory boards should not be formed to solve a particular problem. We either need to make them really count or we should not create them at all.
In fact, a poorly constructed advisory board can cause more problems than the one it may have been created to solve.
So how can you make an advisory board really count?
THE 3 REASONS ORGANIZATIONS CREATE AN ADVISORY BOARD
My belief is that most of the time an advisory board is created without consideration of strategy and context. Here are questions organizations face that lead them to creating an advisory board.
- You Just Instituted Board Term Limits. And the way you got the vote to go this way was to talk about how former board members will stay connected. The board fought for some kind of formal structure or else they will slip away from the organization. Board members claimed they must keep their institutional memory. We want them to continue giving and we surely don’t want them to feel like they have been put out to pasture.
- Great Folks Who Can’t Meet the Board Requirements. “So-and-so would be amazing but can’t meet the obligations – too busy, not a person of means.” What if we found folks like that and put them on an advisory board?
- Well Known Folks in Your Sphere of Influence. Again, folks that are seen as too much of a stretch for board service (“Oh, we’ll never get HER!”) but maybe someone who would be willing to lend her name to the organization?
THE REAL PROBLEM WITH ADVISORY BOARDS
The big problem is that most advisory boards have no clear purpose and those asked to serve have no clue what the responsibility or obligation of service is because no one else knows either.
There’s collateral damage that falls from that lack of clarity, and it’s the real problem. One that few consider.
Advisory boards can actually cause more harm than good.
- People asked to serve think the board has some real value and find out it doesn’t. Then they feel undervalued. You are actually more likely to lose them by putting them on a board with no responsibility or authority than if you just brought them together quarterly to appreciate and cultivate them.
- Add terrific folks to the advisory board who can’t meet the obligations of board service and you risk demotivating the actual board. Then you have smart and engaged folks on an advisory board and governing board that feels useless and neither of them will engage in fundraising.
- An advisory board with no fundraising responsibility could be way more appealing to folks than a governing board.
- Let’s not forget that formal bodies require management and staff time. There’s nothing more frustrating than assigning a staff member to be the liaison to an entity with no real charge or goals. Yikes.
AN ADVISORY BOARD THAT MAKE SENSE
Ambassadors of XYZ.org / Emeritus Board / Board of Governors
This is made up of former board members and lead volunteers. The cream of the alumni crop. They are an elite bunch. They are asked to make a minimum contribution and attend X number of events. They are invited to one annual board meeting a year that is tailored to tapping into the institutional memory of the advisory board and makes full use of their observations and insights. They are acknowledged at events and listed in organizational materials.
Call it something with a bit more heft if you want, but this is a group of folks who bring very specialized skills to your organization. It could be some kind of pro bono team that offers legal, HR, or PR advice and is tapped into with such regularity that it would present an undue burden for these folks to serve on board committees. This group would also be appreciated and recognized in some way that would offer attribution to them as individuals or to their companies.
Note that the word “celebrity” is in quotes. Here we are looking at well-known folks in your community, CEO’s who will clearly not join your board, and others whose name adds credibility and gravitas to your organization. In this situation, the only obligation is that the organization may use your name on its branding, on gala invites, etc. These can be helpful in bringing high profile folks to your events. When asking folks to ‘serve,’ be sure to say that we use the names of the ‘celebrity’ board members as ‘honorary host committee members’ for big fundraisers. Make it clear that attendance at the event would be fantastic but is not required. As with any of these entities, steward and appreciate often.
Board Farm Team / Leadership Circle
This is a different take on the idea of a separate entity. Here, the idea is less of a high-profile group that has a special status and legitimate responsibilities but instead is a way to test drive the relationship between the individual and the board. Think of it as a junior board – few responsibilities, a focus on engagement and fundraising with a lower set of obligations. These can be very effective if they are branded as special and attractive.
If you have or are considering any kind of advisory board or council, circulate this post to make sure the conversation you have is a three dimensional one. Remember that every entity you create that is affiliated with your organization must be of value to those who agree to serve and to those who will provide staff support.
Not only is a conversation important to maximize the participation and the sense of satisfaction and reward that stakeholders receive from the gift of service, but you also want to preempt problems that a lack of strategy may create.
Ironically, I’ve seen far too many organizations lose important stakeholders by trying so hard to hold on to them.
Do you have an advisory board? Please share your stories below. I know readers would benefit from both cautionary tales and success stories.