How to Create a Nonprofit Advisory Council and Why

I love fall — with it comes so many possibilities. It reminds me of one of my favorite fall quotes by French author Albert Camus: “Autumn is the second spring when every leaf is a flower.” It professes a love for the season of fall but also a season of life where everything beautiful can reemerge in a new and exciting way.

This fall we are contemplating a relatively new trend in the social sector — Advisory Councils — where outgoing board members can experience a new season as Advisory Council members. For nonprofits considering creating Advisory Councils or reimagining their existing ones, we want to share a quick Q&A about the role of an Advisory Council and how to implement one that best serves your organization.

What is the role of an Advisory Council in the social sector? What name should we use? Who should be on an Advisory Council?

Advisory Councils exists outside of the nonprofit’s official Board of Directors to serve as ambassadors for the nonprofit in an unofficial capacity. They do not have any governing authority or fiduciary role. For this reason, we prefer the name Advisory Council over Advisory Committee or Board. It does a better job explaining the group’s purpose (i.e., counsel) and ensures there is no legal confusion. Members often come from two groups: 1) former board members who are term-limited out of service but wish to stay engaged in a different capacity; or 2) policymakers, business executives or subject matter influencers who cannot serve on boards due to time constraints or conflicts of interest. Advisory Councils can also have different formats, such as Auxiliary Groups, Young Professional Groups and Program/Research Expert Panels. Some are permanent while others are temporary and project-based (e.g., Capital Campaign, Social Enterprise).

Should we consider an Advisory Council?

If you have a real role for Advisory Council members AND have time to properly steward them, we highly recommend creating an Advisory Council as a way to engage former board members as well as build a circle of support for your nonprofit’s mission. We also love involving Advisory Councils in strategic planning. While Advisory Council members often have an insider perspective of an organization, they can also give balanced opinions on an optimal strategic course to pursue.

What are the best roles for an Advisory Council? How often should they meet?

Nonprofits need to be clear about the difference between the board and the Advisory Council, especially since board members can “graduate” to an Advisory Council. The board’s chief responsibility is governance. So, an Advisory Council is less about governance and more about advice and ambassadorship. Advisory Councils promote the organization and its mission in the community as well as provide an excellent feedback loop for community insights. Given these roles, they typically need to meet two to four times a year to maintain a close connection to the meeting.

We have an existing Advisory Council. What can be done to make it even better?

Advisory Councils — if done right — can have a multiplier effect. But, like every volunteer group, they require stewardship. A common complaint I hear from influential community volunteers is that nonprofits are using the volunteers’ names as Advisory Council members on their letterhead but haven’t contacted them in over a year.

To engage the group, you may want to assign a staff member to shepherd the group and ensure they have the latest information on the organization. In addition, you may want to appoint a chair who is invited to board meetings but not eligible to vote. That individual can relay information back to Advisory Council members.

Based on our best practices, we recommend the following at a minimum to create an Advisory Council:

1) establish a charter;

2) vote on a chair as well as a preferred size;

3) meet with an agreed-upon frequency with strategic agendas;

4) establish two-way communications, performance goals and expectations through a job description for Council members;

5) create guidelines for membership and enforce them; and

6) monitor performance and solicit feedback regularly for continuous improvement.

Advisory Councils can be an effective tool to cultivate ambassadors for your cause and connect with new audiences. We hope this answered many of your burning questions and welcome any additional questions or feedback.

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