Successful Advisory Groups

Boards and executives cannot know everything that nonprofits need them to know!  Projects or challenges sometimes need specialized knowledge.  Volunteer advisory groups can be a great solution.  These groups can tackle a specific topic or project and provide input to leadership and the Board.  They can also be a vital part of your nonprofit’s Board development program. Unfortunately, if not set up properly, these groups can cause serious issues for the organization.  This post will provide some of the basics, from set up to wind down, that will help your nonprofit make the most of an advisory group.


It’s All in a Name

There are a variety of names for an advisory group, such as; advisory Board, advisory council, advisory committee or non-voting Board.  Many organizations select Advisory Board or Advisory Committee, neither of which is a good choice.  Using “board” or “committee” can lead to confusion, so lean toward group, council or panel to avoid misinterpretations.


What are Volunteer Advisory Boards?

They are groups of volunteers that:

  • Provide expertise on specific issues or aid on projects
  • Can be temporary or longer-term in nature
  • Go by many names, such as; non-voting Boards, councils or groups
  • Do not have fiduciary responsibilities or rights of voting Board members


Why Have Advisory Groups?

Advisory volunteer groups:

  • Bring focused expertise in areas where Board knowledge may not be sufficient
  • Work on broad strategic issues and bring recommendations to the Board or executive
  • Broaden the organization’s network of contacts for fund raising, strategic partnerships or expanding the volunteer base
  • Provide engagement and effort without the cost of hired consultants

In addition, these groups can be an important step in Board development as participation can be a first step for potential Board candidates.  Performance on an advisory group can be an indicator that Boards can review during the candidate assessment process.


Why Join An Advisory Group?

From an individual’s perspective, advisory groups are a great opportunity to contribute knowledge and experience to a nonprofit without taking on the responsibilities of a full Board member.  These groups are also and excellent way to network with folks that share similar passions and can be an incredible learning and mentoring environment.


Risks to Address

Advisory groups have risks, including those times when members:

  • Overstep authority by taking action or instructing staff
  • Communicate externally on behalf of the organization without authorization
  • Conduct themselves or maintain relationships that reflect poorly on organization
  • Use information developed by the group inappropriately

All of these risks can be address via proper group setup, monitoring and by ensuring engagement between the group and the Board.


7 Steps to Setup an Advisory Group

Formalize general operations of Volunteer Advisory groups in Bylaws, to include:

  • Pick the Name: make it recognizable and use panel, group, council, etc.
  • Define the Purpose: the specific project or general topic(s) that the group will tackle
  • Set the Objectives: identify specific deliverables and timeframes
  • Identify the Membership: note any limitations or requirements and how people are identified, nominated, vetted and added to the group
  • Clarify the Terms of Membership: these are the organization’s expectations, including time commitment, adherence with company policies, expected length of service and disclosures by the member
  • Describe Connections to Board and executive management: detail expected interactions between group members and the Board as well as any reporting requirements
  • Document the Logistics: establish basic meeting protocols, including meeting frequency, minutes, attendance styles, documentation requirements and any special roles, such as group chair, secretary, etc.


Related Corporate Policies

Members of any group working on behalf of the organization should know and follow its policies.  High on the list of policies that should be formally reviewed and acknowledged by group members are;

  • External Communications Policy
  • Conflict of Interest Policy
  • Cyber Security or IT Policies


Non-Disclosure Agreement

All members of a volunteer advisory group should sign the organization’s standard non-disclosure agreement.  Group members will have access to sensitive information and may generate recommendations for the organization that should remain proprietary.


Oversight / Assessment

The organization’s Board must remain engaged with the advisory group on a recurring basis to ensure progress and check for misunderstandings.  The Board may or may not want to have a Board member or executive installed as leader of the advisory group and liaison to the Board.  As noted before, the Board may want to observe potential future Board candidates, so they need to have eyes on group meetings in progress.

Periodically, for longer term groups, the Board needs to assess how the group is performing and possibly reset expectations.


Bottom Line

Volunteer advisory groups can be invaluable for nonprofits by expanding the range of skills and experience to available to the organization.  If set up and managed properly, these groups can provide great value with very low risk for the nonprofit.  In addition, they can provide an excellent learning opportunity for members and a solid path for those who would like to be considered for full Board membership.

Does your organization have Volunteer Advisory Groups?  If so, please share your experiences in the comments section.

For more on building a Board member pipeline, check out this post:  5 Ways to Build a Board Member Pipeline


About the author:

Michael F. Cade is a nonprofit advisor and executive coach, taking the nonprofit sector Beyond the Numbers.  He is a leadership pathfinder, helping nonprofits optimize operations and strategy to attain long-term viability and relevance.  His Framework for Fiscal Sustainability is an innovative approach for evaluating organizational health and securing the ongoing ability to deliver on its mission.

Mr. Cade publishes the nonprofit leadership blog  Not for Profit Beyond the Numbers

If you have questions or would like a consultation on a nonprofit leadership or operational issue, contact him at: