Organizations are not created in a vacuum. They are born and grow within a network of meaningful connections to people and other organizations that allow them to develop and flourish. Sometimes, controlling part of that network and turning it to the organization’s advantage is a more than worthwhile endeavor: this is when advisory groups are established.
What are advisory groups?
Advisory groups are individuals and/or groups of individuals that contribute to the establishment, maintenance and development of an organization. Advisory groups are part of the organizational structure, yet separated from its membership. They’re somewhat in between the role of an external consultancy and an internal auditing team, in their impartial, yet caring, approach to the organization’s issues. They are usually characterized by the variety of its members’ peculiar expertise in organizational issues and/or in the organization’s core activities. They are formally and legally detached from the organization, but they still contribute to it by providing guidance and insight.
What kind of groups are we talking about?
The most common denominations of such advisory groups all centre around the word “advise” (e.g. board of advisors, advisory committee, council of economic advisers). In some other cases, the concept of advisory board overlaps with the concept of “board of directors”: in these cases, the influence of the advisors (a.k.a. board members) is greater than the one they would have as a separate advisory board on their own, although they are still not the ones directly managing the organization, a responsibility that falls instead in the hands of a single person nominated by the board of directors (i.e. the CEO or Executive Director or any similar role). Separating the concepts of “advising” and “directing” clarifies each group’s role within an organization and that is why, in the rest of the article, we’ll consider advisory groups as a separate entity of their own, neither overlapping nor intertwined with any other organizational structure.
Why are they necessary?
There are various reasons why an organization should consider establishing advisory groups. Among them, most important are:
expertise: the people involved are usually experts in their field and can provide valuable counsel on certain issues, when these issues are faced by the organization or the organization’s management team, be it about strategy, crisis management, or anything else related to your nonprofit’s core activities
accountability/self-discipline: reporting to a board of advisors gives to an organization the capacity to account for its own activities to an external body that is not concerned with a specific aspect of the organization, but rather for the organization as a whole; sure, relations with customers/users/members/donors are important, but they all are just a part of the big picture: an advisory group is just like Snow White’s mirror, it reflects what it sees, with an impartial judgement (well, not exactly like Snow White’s mirror then)
long-term memory: in some cases, especially with youth nonprofits where the generational change is rapid and not many members are active in the organization for more than 3-5 years, advisory groups can be the longest standing bodies in place in or around an organization; they are yet another mean to ensure that the collective wisdom of the organization, gathered in a few individuals, stays indeed anchored to a solid bedrock of experts who’ve been in the “business” for a long time
What do advisory groups usually work on?These are some of the possible tasks your organization might ask its advisory groups to focus on:
connecting: due to the decades-long experience of your advisers, it is very likely that their network of people and organization is much broader and influential than yours; group members are valuable in their capacity to connect you to (a) somebody you’d like to connect to, through a credible and authoritative channel or (b) somebody they think might be good for you to know, due to a similarity of interests or activities or challenges faced
clarifying your organization’s identity: when you start up a nonprofit, it’s very hard to get your vision/mission/objectives right the first time you put your mind to it; advisory groups help you by making sure you know what you’re dealing with, either because they have been going through the same processes in their career (i.e. starting a business/nonprofit or rebranding their organization’s identity), or because they’re experts in your nonprofit’s field and know what similar organizations’ visions/missions/objectives are and can help you fit yours among them
improve effectiveness: most likely, your advisers have worked for longer than you have been; they know how to run teams and organizations, they can always shed some light on working procedures, structures and day-to-day management good practices
act as mediators: sometimes issues might arise in your work that require an impartial, yet friendly, point of view; advisory groups are your “go to” resource when you deal with team issues, organizational crises, internal disputes and so on
lend credibility: especially in your start up phase, they can give to your nonprofit the credibility you wouldn’t have otherwise; donors often rely on that to be “insured” against a potentially bad investment in nonprofit activities
provide strategical insights: finally, advisory groups can do what you’d like them mainly to do: advise you on everything and anything!
Benefits and rewards (a.k.a. your costs)
So, we know how important are these groups to us, but what’s in it for them? Most commonly, all the expenses related to the involvement of people in your nonprofit’s advisory groups should be covered by your organization: travel costs (if any), meeting costs, communication costs. If you think it’s necessary, a compensation for their work (something like a yearly salary) can be awarded either to them, or to a charitable organization of their choice. All this, plus of course the intrinsic rewards of serving a cause they believe in, enjoying the challenge of supporting a start up organization and working with people they love working with!
Structure of advisory groups
Here’s where things get complicated. Designing advisory groups is pretty much a skill, rather than an exact science. Once you know what you want out of them and how much can you afford to spend on their maintenance, you’ll know how many groups you need and what will each group do. I have three alternatives in mind so far, but I’d be glad to add more if you have other suggestions:
all-in-one (e.g. Mars Institute): call it “board of advisors”, or “international advisory council” or whatever else; you gather all the people you want recommendations from in a unique group, which takes care of all the tasks I mentioned; all kinds of people are in here, advising you on all kinds of issues at stake
alumni (e.g. Kellog) + other experts: one alumni advisory group, made of former members of your organization (possibly, previous middle and top managers), capturing the past knowledge of your organization (with “long-term memory” as its main role); in addition to that, one group of experts, with outsider knowledge (“expertise” and “accountability/self-discipline” as its main roles) to complement the alumni group in their advisory role
users/customers (e.g. Apple) + other experts: although we’re dealing with nonprofits and not with businesses, sometimes it’s important to focus on our organization’s target group and giving it a voice and a place of its own
honorary members: no team of its own, but simply a group of people that is consulted for specific occasions/reasons, due to their past or current high impact with the organization’s activities
Once the structure is in place, there are two issues that need to be discussed:
coordination with the organization: is there a chairman of the group(s) who regularly keeps in contact with the management team of the organization (option 1 or 2) or is there a responsible within the organization who acts as the advisory groups liaison (options 1, 2 or 3)?
size of the group: proportional to the size of the organization; some resort to a huge variety of advisors, some others to just a couple of them; 3-5 people is enough for a start up nonprofit of small size that has limited resources to spend on advisory groups; also note that size has implications on how often advisors are contacted (i.e. large group, less frequent meetings) or in general on how much the group acts as a team rather than merely as a list of contacts
Communication Regardless of who’s in charge of the communication with the advisory group(s), the following should be taken into account:
updates should be regular and timely, a few times a year, and for ad-hoc situations as well
sometimes letters are a nicer way of communicating with them than emails (it makes them feel like they get the respect they deserve)
clear expectations, goals and objectives of their teams are essential for a fruitful collaboration
and, finally, politeness and capacity to listen and accept their input must transpare in every interaction
Meetings In the first year, you’ll mostly try to meet them during the activities you organize or attend to (e.g. conferences), or you won’t meet them at all, since you won’t be probably able to pay for their travel expenses. Still, you should make sure that every time you meet them around the world, you give them the treatment they deserve (e.g. paying for a dinner out, coffee/tea and refreshments during a meeting, providing them with paper-printed copies of your documents, etc.). When the organization is more mature, you can think of paying for their travel expenses to a yearly (or, every 6 months) full-fledged meeting. In the meetings, make sure to involve all members of the management team (to increase buy-in of the advisors’ insights), follow an agenda that meets determinate objectives and, most importantly, let the advisors advise you, by allowing them to talk a fair share of the time! Who? Finally, the most pressing question of all: who would you invite to take part in those advisory groups? When it comes to characteristics, look for people who complement your management team’s strength and weaknesses and that can be considered a useful (and necessary) extension of your organization (i.e. to extend your network of donors, to extend your knowledge of managerial issues, etc. – you know better your own criteria and needs). Look for those characteristics first of all in the people and groups that have been already working with you in starting up your organization (but try to avoid those who might condition further advancement – e.g. a major donor who wants exclusive cooperation). Develop profiles according to the characteristics you have in mind and simply start contacting the people who match those characteristics, trying to aim for a group with enough diversity to match all profiles. And remember to keep in touch with all the people in your shortlist: even if they’re not ready for such a commitment, they might be up for a hint or two in times of need… you never know!
Nicolò Wojewoda is a graduate student at TU Delft (The Netherlands), involved in youth and international organizations since 2002. He recently co-founded SPEED (Student Platform for Engineering Education Development), a global youth nonprofit and he blogs at [http://nicolowojewoda.com/]