Advisory board a good place to recruit directors


April 19, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

Every so often, during question-and-answer periods after a presentation to a group of nonprofit leaders, I am asked about advisory boards. What are they really about? How can they best be used? What is their role in an organization?

Perhaps it's best to illustrate what they are by first explaining what they are not. An advisory board is not the board of directors. That is, an advisory board does not make policy, define the mission and vision, or hire and evaluate the executive director. Other than those restrictions, it is pretty much an open game.

Advisory boards are used for many purposes, any of which should complement the board of directors. But, unlike a member of the board of directors, an advisory board member should not be expected to volunteer time or money to the same degree. After all, an advisory board member has agreed only to advise, and usually only in his area of expertise.

First and foremost, in a healthy nonprofit organization, an advisory board should be viewed as a fertile field where future members of the board of directors can be cultivated. In a way, the advisory board is a recruitment tool. This is a critically important feature of advisory boards.

Let's suppose that you ask an accountant to serve on the advisory board, initially to advise a board of directors committee on a planned change in accounting procedures. After three months of work, you find this adviser to be knowledgeable, dynamic and, above all, very interested in the work of the agency.

After some cultivation, invitations to agency events and informal interactions with other board members, you find the adviser to be a strong candidate for the board of directors.

In this case, using the advisory board route has given you a proven performer, rather than an unknown entity. In today's environment -- with a solid board of directors needed for an organization to thrive -- it's a plus to have a board member with a proven record.

The advisory board also lets you use the skills and talents of people who are otherwise too busy to serve the organization. These people may not be able to serve on the board of directors for a variety of reasons. But they may be called on as needed to help out.

Another function of the advisory board is as a place for departing members of the board of directors. This allows a retiring board member to keep ties to the agency without committing himself to monthly meetings, committee assignments, attendance at vTC events and all the other requirements of policy board membership.

In the 3-plus-3 model of board membership -- which I advocate -- after six years of dutiful service, the board member can become a trusted adviser for a year or two. Then, he can decide whether to rejoin the board or put his talents and experience to work for a different cause.

The advisory board offers the nominating committee of the board of directors a good option for members who have lost their effectiveness but who still would like to keep an organizational affiliation.

An advisory board also offers the organization a means of broadening its target markets' perceptions of the wide support the organization receives. This often helps in recruiting members for the board of directors who might otherwise feel uncomfortable because of their unfamiliarity with the organization.

For whatever reasons the advisory board is established, it is important for the organization to maintain an appropriate perspective on its members' roles and responsibilities. An organization should not expect advisers to have the same commitment as the members of the board of directors.

On the other hand, advisers should have clear ideas of what is expected of them. This requires some thought and careful planning.

I have found it best when advisers are asked to contribute in some way on a regular basis. This takes an enormous commitment of time and energy on the part of the agency, but it pays off handsomely in the long run.

(Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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