Get the Most From an Advisory Group

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By Jerry Henry,

Anyone involved in development has heard it said, “Ask for money and you will get advice; ask for advice and you will get money.” The meaning is simple: if you ask for the dollars before you’ve engaged the prospects fully, listened to them, and heard what is meaningful to them, they are less likely to contribute.

Many organizations initiate some type of an advisory group as a way of engaging folks who may not wish to serve on a governance board or in other roles for the organization. We often recommend that governing board members who have exceeded their terms should be considered for a role on an organization’s advisory group to keep their support and involvement strong. Many of these groups can be effective and a great asset to an organization.

However, I’ve recently had a personal experience serving on a national organization where the presence of an advisory group has created challenges to the leadership board of the organization. Members of one board didn’t understand their own roles, much less the role of the advisory group. Tempers flared, hard feelings emerged, and staff members had a real challenge on their hands.

So, speaking from personal experience, here are five points to keep in mind as you consider why and how you might use an advisory group.

First, be very clear about the purpose of the advisory group . Make sure the group has a stated goal, mission and a defined scope of the group’s responsibilities. As you go about recruiting members or inviting individuals to participate, be sure they are a “good fit” to the group’s goals. By that I mean, ensure they are people you already know, who have a passion for your organization and who have some resources you want. Those resources might include specific skills or background, (business, management or marketing skills, for example), targeted interests in your organization (specifically a willingness to be a vocal ambassador for your organization) and/or philanthropic prowess (the ability to give AND to get).

Second, be clear about how you will refer to the group. Most organizations create a Board of Advisors. I would caution that the very term “board” implies a certain degree of oversight and authority. That’s not the role of an advisory group. Consider a term such asadvisory council, advisory task force, or even create a name that is special to your organization. This helps to avoid any confusion among your constituents about the presence of two boards: a Board of Trustees and a Board of Advisors, for example.

Third, ensure that members have a meaningful experience while a part of this group and that they accomplish specific tasks. Be sure to orient members well to the goals and objectives of this group, and clearly establish the limits of their work. Advisory groups can make recommendations and offer ideas/suggestions, but in most cases they are not a decision-making entity.

Fourth, develop a clear structure for their participation including a timeline for service. Just as in any volunteer group, respect individuals’ time and don’t hold meetings just to roll out another “dog and pony” show about what your organization is doing. As stated above, determine how to make meetings meaningful for members and help them achieve a sense of accomplishment. As for a timeline, I would recommend that you appoint people to an advisory group for a one-year term.

Fifth, determine ways to express sincere appreciation for advice given or tasks accomplished. Remember to thank these volunteers often and in many different ways. You are seeking their input and advice, and you want to acknowledge their participation.

Keeping these points in mind as you determine how to mold and shape any advisory group you have will ensure that your advisory group becomes a real asset and not a liability.

Remember, it’s as true in seeking advice as it is in asking for philanthropic support, “Be careful what you ask for…you just might get it!”