Nonprofit Matters - Dr. B.J. Bischoff


Advisory council can be great asset

Many nonprofit organizations establish groups of advisors to give them guidance and support with special needs, including fundraising, program support, or increased prestige and visibility in the community. Frequently called Advisory Boards, Councils, or Committees, these groups provide a valuable way for nonprofits to connect to key community members who have specialized skills that can help move the organization forward.

The first step in developing an advisory group is to determine and document the group’s true purpose and level of authority. Many organizations are steering away from using the term advisory board to avoid any confusion with the governing board of the organization and are instead using the term advisory council or committee. Typical advisory group purposes include advocacy, fundraising, providing advice on a specific issue, providing community relations, or serving a liaison role with the organization’s participants or beneficiaries. It is also important for the organization’s leadership to determine how the advisory group will interact with the organization’s board of directors.

Sweetwater Spectrum, a new Sonoma residential community for adults with autism, has already established an advisory group. According to board president Mark Jackson, “Sweetwater Spectrum has an advisory committee that complements our organization’s mission. Committee members have diverse backgrounds, including nonprofit management, fundraising, finance, and medical expertise surrounding autism.”

When determining who should serve in an advisory group, it is critical to identify people who will be a good fit with the core purpose of the group, represent the mission of the organization with integrity, and knowledgably speak about the organization’s programs and services. According to WillMar Family Grief & Healing Center Executive Director Barbara Cullen, “As needs arise, we develop ad hoc advisory committees around specific needs we have. We want to utilize people’s expertise and we don’t want to waste anyone’s time, so our advisory committees are project-driven. We are excited about expanding our space next month to accommodate our program growth, so we are thinking about having a committee to help us think through our future space needs.”

Although many nonprofits may have an official advisory committee with member names proudly appearing on their letterhead and website, a great many of those groups never meet and lack a clear purpose. To have an advisory committee that adds value and is more than just a list of names on the letterhead, nonprofit leaders can take the following steps: (1) name a committee chair and establish a clear reporting structure; (2) have members start working on a task immediately to develop a sense of ownership; (3) prepare members for the work they will do by providing an orientation, reviewing the group’s mission, clarifying their limits of authority, and identifying the decisions the group will make; (4) develop a clear scope of work, measurable objectives, and key priorities; and (5) provide ongoing nurturing and maintenance.

Cherie Hughes, Board President of the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance, said, “The Mentoring Alliance is in the process of rejuvenating its advisory council. We had an advisory board in past years, but it lost its momentum. So, now we are hoping to get a nucleus of former board members and other supporters of the mentoring program who we can turn to when we need to get a second opinion on some of our ideas.”

It’s never too late to breathe a second wind into those advisory boards that may not have met in years. And now just might be the best time for your nonprofit to start an advisory group to help guide your organization into the future.

Dr. B.J. Bischoff is the owner of Bischoff Performance Improvement Consulting, a Sonoma firm specializing in building the capacity of nonprofit organizations and public sector agencies to better serve their stakeholders. She is President of Impact100 Sonoma, leads the Sonoma Valley Presidents Council and serves on the Sonoma Upstream Investments Portfolio Review Committee as an appointee of the Board of Supervisors. Contact her at bjbischoff@bjbischoff.com.

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