Picture this: It’s another board meeting for your nonprofit organization, and you’re all gathered around the table, debating the pros and cons of instituting term limits. Some board members are in favor, others are against, and the discussion seems to be going in circles.
Well, my friend, I’ve been there. And let me tell you, I’ve seen it all when it comes to figuring out what to do with departing board members. But there was one particular moment that made me realize that nonprofit advisory boards aren’t always the best solution…
I was at a meeting for an organization I was advising, and they were discussing whether to create an advisory board to keep former board members engaged.
“Engaged” in this situation usually means board members who:
- Continue their giving
- Hang on to their institutional knowledge
- Continue to receive respect they deserve for their tenure
One of the board members raised their hand and said, “Wait a minute, so you’re telling me that after I spend 12 years on this board, I get kicked off, and the only way you want me to stay involved is to be on some glorified committee? No thank you!”
Everyone laughed, but it got me thinking: Is an advisory board really the best way to keep former board members engaged? And more importantly, is it fair to expect them to continue giving their time and expertise in this way?
Or would creating an advisory board to keep former board members engaged like fighting mosquitos with more mosquitos?
After some reflection, I came up with 5 reasons why nonprofit advisory boards might not be the best solution in this situation and some alternative ideas that could be more effective.
So let’s dive in, my friend!
TOP 5 REASONS ADVISORY BOARDS ARE A BAD IDEA
1. Implicit assumption: folks are more engaged when they are part of a THING.
Really? How many nonprofit organizations have boards where members are not engaged? A ba-zillion? I rest my case.
2. Complete lack of clarity about the role of the THING.
After my 47 years as board chair, I am now on this advisory board. That does?????
So often advisory board charges are vague (if they exist). Want to hold on to these folks, their institutional memory, and their annual gift? I know. Let’s put them on some THING that has no real purpose. Great idea. Not.
3. Now that we have the THING, the problem is solved.
First of all, long-tenured, highly invested former board members do not represent a problem to be solved. More importantly, creating the THING creates a mindset that exonerates folks from engaging with these folks. We figured out what to do with them — they are now on the THING! Mission accomplished. Actually, this mission will backfire big time. Put them on a THING and leave them to your own devices at your own peril.
4. THINGS are a lot of work.
Staff leaders have to manage the THING. And they don’t devote the time necessary to the most important THING — the board. Advisory boards will expect staff support for whatever it is that they do (that they generally don’t understand). And if (2) above is true, be sure to make time to manage the frustrations of these very important people.
5. These THINGS will not typically align with diversity values.
When the board generates this ‘genius’ idea, it doesn’t cross their minds that most folks who have been around forever are largely white men. Perhaps your board is on a DEI journey and working actively to bring a DEI lens to board recruitment. Your board begins to look and feel diverse, generating new and innovative ideas as a result. Even with a clear charge for your THING, the two bodies are going to be out of alignment. And you could wind up with a messy power dynamic between the two of them.
Bottom line: Far too often, advisory boards backfire. Advisory boards are often poorly conceived, created as a sign of respect and to ensure that these board members don’t stray far from the organization.
OK Joan, so my board says Yes and I go with you and say NO. “NO” could mean no term limits, and we need them desperately.
MOVE BOARD MEMBERS TO SEE THE UNDERLYING ISSUE
First off, don’t say NO. I said NO, but I want you to say something like this:
So lots of organizations have advisory boards to ensure continued engagement and the truth is they can backfire. It can seem like the easy answer but it might actually be taking us all off the hook.
Before we go down advisory board boulevard, let’s talk about what we are solving for and the options that are available to us to solve for. Lead them to the three ways I’m about to tease out what we mean by engagement.
How can we best keep the former board member close and engaged and rely on their continued giving?
- Nurture them like any VIP donors
- Seek their advice
- Identify ways for them to be public ambassadors, especially as it relates to fundraising
AN ALTERNATIVE TO AN ADVISORY BOARD
OK, so we know how we want to engage board members. Instead of creating another THING, how about a strategy that looks like this:
- Quarterly virtual gathering of board alums. Organized by Development, led by E.D. and with a programmatic element, a development update and some engagement topic.
- Former board members tagged as VIPs and assigned to ED, Chair, Devo Director or current board members (1-2 folks) for monthly stewardship outreach. Specific assignments should be made.
- Engagement strategy: Identify a way in which each alum might be utilized to add value to the work (accompany Devo Director on an Ask, contribute professional expertise, join a strategic planning session to offer institutional history).
Treat this group like a VIP major donor group because that is exactly what they are. Create an intentional engagement strategy (not a heavy lift) that engages them and stewards them from the highest level of the organization.
This is how we should treat our board alums and far too frequently, this is not what happens.
We create an advisory board that we think will be easier (and it’s not) and will engage them (and it doesn’t).
Build a strategy to keep alums close, enriched, and valued. That’s the THING!!!
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