An executive director I know created a Medical Advisory Group that met once annually to provide content for their annual conference. Another executive and her board established a Past Presidents’ Council to keep former board leaders engaged. A third, obtained permission from a select group of local influencers to list their names on his nonprofit’s letterhead. These are just a few examples of how executive directors and board members have creatively attracted and organized people on behalf of their nonprofits. Most nonprofit leaders generically refer to these groups as Advisory “Boards.”

In September, the Texas Nonprofit Summit, dedicated to nonprofit capacity building, will be held. A presentation topic nonprofits are requesting is Advisory “Boards.” The pros and cons of having an advisory group (preferred over “Board”) has also come up in Bay Area executive director roundtable discussions. There are as many perspectives as there are nonprofit leaders about advisory groups and not a consistent understanding of the scope of benefits.

Those benefits fall into five categories.

1.  Legitimization.  In this case, the nonprofit is looking for credibility and an opportunity to build its reputation. This is a common motivation and involves using someone’s name while refraining from requesting much else. The names are typically listed in the nonprofit’s publications, website, collateral etc. In this case, the use of “advisory” in the group’s title is a bit of a misnomer!

2.  Influence. Nonprofit leaders may form an advisory group of people who have the potential and inclination to influence others on their nonprofit’s behalf. This can be for public policy advocacy, for example, or to attract donors. Nonprofit leaders need to connect with a variety of spheres of influence related to their missions and creating a focused group with that in mind can really make a difference.

3. Expertise. Accessing needed expertise is another benefit. This type of advisory group brings expertise to address a particular operational area or project–for example, recruiting contractors, architects, realtors etc. when building or renovating a facility.

4.  Support. Perhaps this is a “catch-all” category but nonprofits form advisory groups for general support of the mission. This can take many forms: an emeritus group of former board members is a common example.

5. Community engagement/voice. Nonprofit leaders may convene advisory groups to provide a structured means for engaging with stakeholders, for example to provide a voice for those who use or benefit from the services or activities provided. When CEO of a mental health nonprofit, I formed what we called a Consumer Advisory Group—made up of people with direct experience of mental illness whose voices and perspectives were important to us.

Can you think of benefits of an advisory group that don’t fit into one of the five categories? Please comment below on your experiences and share your words of wisdom! Next time, I’ll share some strategies that work in creating advisory groups and some pitfalls to avoid.