Thursday, October 9, 2014

Should Your Board Launch an Advisory Council?

Over lunch this week, three of us talked about the upside of launching an advisory council for a nonprofit ministry. A younger leader was seeking advice, the invited expert was an experienced advisory council member, and in between bites of a chicken sandwich, I facilitated the conversation.

There is helpful counsel on councils, and numerous cautions, in The Nonprofit Board Answer Book: A Practical Guide for Board Members and Chief Executives (Third Edition), published by BoardSource. (Note: The first edition was co-authored by Ted Engstrom and Bob Andringa.) In the chapter, “Should Our Board Have Advisory Councils?” the jam-packed wisdom includes eight helpful bullet points in just three pages:
  • Set guidelines for creating advisory councils.
  • Choose an appropriate name. (“Avoid names that use the word ‘board.’”)
  • Describe the group’s role.
  • Establish terms of service.
  • Provide for formal leadership. (“Volunteers often respond better when one of their own chairs an advisory council.”)
  • Plan for staff assistance.
  • Budget for any expenses.
  • Provide appropriate publicity. (“Guard against providing more publicity than is warranted.”)

Our expert at the table described both positive and negative experiences while serving on advisory boards. (He preferred the positive ones!) While not opposed to serving on advisory councils where fundraising (giving and getting) is expected, he stressed the importance of the ministry leader communicating that expectation at the get-go. 

Alignment with the organization’s mission—we all agreed—was critical. I prejudiced the conversation with a few more opinions:
  • Invite people to serve who already have a passion for your organization. (Use the principles on board recruitment from the ECFA Governance Toolbox Series No. 1:Recruiting Board Members.)
  • Ensure that each advisory council member has a “personal win” by leveraging his or her “3 Powerful S’s: Strengths, Spiritual Gifts and Social Styles.”
  • Inspire each advisory council member to establish an annual personal BHAG (a Big Holy Audacious Goal). Each member should dream big and bold: an introduction to a foundation, a creative real estate deal, a strategic plan wish list project, or something else that God has uniquely prepared this person to do or be for your organization.
  • Communicate quarterly with a simple one-page update (mail or email). And treat them as "insiders," so they are among the first to hear both good and bad news.
  • If possible, meet annually for a half-day, or even better, for an overnight retreat with spouses.
  • Highlight the work of the Advisory Council on your website along with photos and brief bios. (Assumption: your board of directors' bios are already featured there.)

As you steward the amazing work of the people God is calling to serve your organization (staff, board, advisory councils, task forces, volunteers, givers, etc.), continue to inspire these teams of Christ-followers with their holy calling! (2 Thessalonians 5:24, NIV, "The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.")

How? BoardSource suggests you interview the CEOs of five organizations that already have advisory councils. Learn from their successes (and mistakes). James Belasco shared this wisdom in the Leadership Tip of the Day on June 29, 2010 (these daily email leadership tips are now available through the Hesselbein Institute).

“You can never do enough looking over the wall
to learn how to do things.
Seeing excellence in action helps individuals
visualize how they can do it for themselves."

QUESTIONS: Has your board invested 15 minutes or more in conversation over the value of launching an advisory board? Does your CEO have margin in his or her life to appropriately leverage the expertise of advisory council members? Who is responsible for spiritually discerning who might be invited onto the council?

Note: BoardSource also publishes a 36-page resource, Advisory Councils, by Nancy R. Axelrod. 

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