I’ve been impressed with the creative ways nonprofit executives have made use of advisory groups. An advisory group is a group of non-governing volunteers who serve a specific purpose for the nonprofit they assist. Generally, that assistance is advise or counsel, but I’ve seen some be more active and project-oriented. You can pick any purpose that is meaningful to your nonprofit! Here are a few examples:

  • a hospice with a Medical Advisory Council,
  • a past Board Presidents’ Alumni group (keeping connected), and
  • an Honorary Committee convened to advise, but also participate in, planning and putting on the nonprofit’s 50th anniversary gala.

The benefits of forming an advisory group for your nonprofit are many. Some groups are nominal but add legitimacy—e.g. names of prominent leaders on your letterhead. Others provide expertise, like the Medical Advisory Council mentioned above. 

If not done thoughtfully, however, forming an advisory group can be a mistake. Conventional wisdom says to not call the group an advisory “board.”  That’s a common mistake that often leads to confusion about roles and authority relative to the board of directors. Another mistake is not thinking through the demands (especially your time) an advisory group may make on you, your staff, and/or other resources of your nonprofit.

When I was a nonprofit CEO, a board member who could no longer serve asked us to form an advisory group. That was the way he wanted to stay involved. We agreed, but looking back on it now, I realize we didn’t think it through enough. So, we didn’t reap the full benefits that are possible when you do this right.

Here are 8 steps to effectively form an advisory group for your nonprofit:

  1. Get clear about the purpose of the group and clearly state it in writing.
  2. Define the authority (or lack of it) this group will have. Who is the group advising? Where will any recommendations go? What relationship does the group have to the board and the CEO?
  3. Evaluate the benefits you expect from the group considering organizational implications. For example, will expenses be incurred and reimbursed? What demands will there be on staff time?
  4. After you’ve done 1-3, if you still want to form the group, determine the composition of the group and the membership criteria you’ll apply. Be sure you’re clear about the commitment and any expectations.
  5. Map out your recruitment and selection process and the timeline.
  6. Determine how you’ll orient the members. What’s the information you’ll share and how?
  7. At this point you’re ready to implement your recruitment, selection, and orientation processes.
  8. Finally, don’t forget to evaluate at least annually whether the group is fulfilling its purpose and whether or not it should continue. Build in a sunset provision when you form it just in case.

With these 8 steps you should have a great experience. You’ll reap the benefits you envisioned from your advisory group—a group with a purpose that is meaningful to its members and valuable to you. What has been your experience with advisory groups? What have been challenges? What has worked?

If you would like a free consultation to discuss creating an advisory group for your nonprofit (or exploring how to have an informed and inspired board) scroll down on this page to apply for a time to talk.