Roles and Responsibilities of Advisory Boards
By Hildy Gottlieb

© ReSolve, Inc. 2009

One of the grey areas in running a Community Benefit Organization is the appropriate role for advisory boards. In addition to the question, “What should our advisory board do?” we often hear at least some (if not all) of the following laments:

  • Our advisory board is disengaged
  • They don’t do anything (and/or “We don’t ask them to do anything”)
  • Their meetings are dull - updates on this or that, with no call to action
  • They don’t meet - we never see them
  • There is no process for recruiting, and no expectations once they are on board
  • etc. and etc. and etc.

To get past these symptoms and on to solutions, let’s look at what’s really going on with Advisory Boards.

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Building and Sustaining Your Group of Advisors

To build and sustain a strong group of advisors / advocates will require 4 simple steps

Step 1:

Know what you need advisors / ambassadors / advocates to accomplish

Step 2:

Determine whether or not (or how often) you want your advisors to meet

Step 3:

Create job descriptions / lists of expectations

Step 4:

Create a list of candidates for each type of task, recruit them, and let them get to work!

Step 1: High-Potential Advisor Roles
The highest potential for a group of advisors / ambassadors / advocates is to provide engaged support for your work in the community.

The logical first step in building your team is therefore to know what kinds of support you need. Here are just some of the tasks your organization may need community support to accomplish:

  • Engagement & communication / ambassadors for the mission
  • Advocacy for public policy
  • Speaking gigs (both getting engagements & doing the actual speaking)
  • Raising money
  • Advising on programs / helping with organizational planning
  • Having high profile names associated with the organization for credibility
  • Providing pro bono work to assist with other staff-driven needs

If you can engage community members to help with all those tasks, your organization will be able to accomplish considerably more, and your mission will be stronger throughout the community.

Step 2: Meetings
The assumption that an advisory group needs to have regular meetings is just that - an assumption. If what you need is individuals who will get work done, sometimes that requires convening together, and sometimes it does not.

A task such as including a heavy-hitter’s name on your letterhead or having her make a few well-placed phone calls - that clearly does not require that your heavy-hitter attend meetings. Other tasks, such as advising on new programs, may absolutely require meetings. In that case, let those individuals determine how often they need to meet, based on the tasks at hand.

Then if you feel it would be helpful to bring ALL your advisors and advocates and ambassadors together once a year to energize and inspire each other, it will be with a very different expectation than the need for quarterly meetings simply because you assume the group has to meet.

Step 3: Set Your Expectations
Once you have a list of tasks and at least some idea of whether and/or how often individuals will need to meet to accomplish those tasks, you can create a brief job description for each of those roles.

The job description could be as simple as, “We need 10 well-connected people who can make phone calls when an issue comes before the legislature.” Or it could be as complex as, “We need several strategic thinkers to help us plan a new program from research to implementation” with all the details spelled out.

The more clearly you can delineate your expectations for each job, the more likely you will be to find great supporters for those roles... and the more likely the job will get done!

For example, you may note whether membership in the group will be ongoing or whether you will ask only for a fixed time commitment. “We know you have limited time. Would you be willing to commit to helping us with fundraising for a year?”

You can note whether there will be regularly scheduled meetings to attend. Or whether advisors are expected to donate cash to the organization. Whatever your expectations, list them so you can be clear with prospective advisors right from the start.

Step 4: Recruit!
With a list of tasks and a list of expectations (including expectations about meetings), you can now recruit specifically for those jobs.

However, you will NOT be asking, “Will you be on our Advisory Board?” (more about why later).

What you WILL ask is, “Will you help us with X?”

And with that, you will have a group of advisors / ambassadors / advocates specifically working on each of the tasks you have listed.

The Biggest Problem with Advisory Boards
If you already have an advisory board, you are probably thinking, “This is all well and good if you’re just starting out. But we already have our Advisory Board. They are already disengaged. They barely attend our quarterly meetings, and when they do attend, they don’t do anything but sit there and listen to staff reports. They don’t volunteer. They don’t do anything!”

If that is you, let me be clear:

All the symptoms Advisory Boards have, including but certainly not limited to those in the opening paragraph of this article, are rooted in the notion that your group of advisors and ambassadors and advocates is, in fact, a board.

That group is not a board.

And the most powerful step you can take to address your “Advisory Board” problems is to stop calling it a board.

By calling this loosely fashioned group of supporters a “board,” we create a whole slew of expectations that simply cannot be met.

Your “board members” may have expectations that they have some sort of authority (which, of course, they do not). Or they may know they do not have authority, but believe that as a “board,” they should be doing something “board-like.” Minutes? Meetings? Those mis-read expectations breed additional expectations, which eventually become the list of symptoms that began this article.

Calling it a “board” creates expectations for the organization’s staff as well. Staff expects that there should be processes for orientation and nomination. That there should be term limits, policies. And yes, that there should be meetings. This then leads to attempts to fix all those perceived “board problems.” If we have to have meetings, for example, we need to know what to do at the meetings - perhaps a report from each of the programs? And again, a spiral leading to a spiral, all because you called it a “board.”

Call them teams, councils, committees, groups. Call them nothing. Call them Task Forces for this or that. Call them “Our Advisors” or “Our Dream Team.” Call them anything but a board.

Once you have stopped thinking of those individuals as a singular “board,” a world of opportunity will open up. You will find your organization recruiting individual talents for specific tasks. And you will have begun engaging a group of committed advisors, ambassadors and advocates who are energized to kick butt on behalf of your mission.

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