Advisory boards are one of the most misunderstood and underutilized tools at a nonprofit organization's disposal. Unlike boards of directors, which have defined legal roles for nonprofits, an organization has the ability to shape the role of its advisory board into one that most fits the needs of the particular charity. Selecting the right role for its advisory board can help a nonprofit carry out its mission more effectively.

Difference Between an Advisory Board and a Board of Directors

An advisory board is distinct from an organization's board of directors and serves a different role. Boards of directors are legally recognized entities that provide governance to a nonprofit. Organizational bylaws generally spell out the number of directors an organization may have as well as their terms and roles.

An advisory board is not generally defined by law and is not a required entity for a nonprofit organization. It serves no legal function for the charity unless that function is spelled out in the organization's bylaws and approved by the board of directors.

Advisory boards are formed by nonprofits to serve specific functions within the organization based on the needs and deficiencies of that particular charity. Nonprofits may form several different advisory boards serving different functions if they so choose.

Defining the Proper Role of the Advisory Board

The organization's staff and board of directors describes the board members' role to advisory board prospects prior to their acceptance as members.

While each advisory board differs depending on the organization, the vast majority of nonprofits use advisory boards for the purpose of assisting with fundraising and development. Members are asked to open their own personal and business networks to the organization to help find new prospects, event attendees and corporate sponsors.

Charities may also use advisory boards to provide counsel in key areas of expertise not represented within the organization's staff. Many organizations have formed marketing and public relations advisory groups and government affairs committees.

The Importance of Relationship Building

Regardless of the specific role of an advisory board at a given organization, every nonprofit relies on its advisory boards to help build relationships for the charity. Through their advisory committees, organizations expand their reach by effectively "borrowing" the contacts of their supporters to generate new friends for the nonprofit.

The important role of relationship building by advisory boards is evident in fundraising, but it is also seen in other areas. An advisory board focused on public relations might help a nonprofit build new contacts and relationships with media outlets and journalists, while an advisory board focused on government relations will forge new alliances with politicians and elected officials.

Term Limits, Leadership Roles and Training Opportunities

Three mechanisms can help define the role of the advisory board and enhance its effectiveness. First, a series of term limits for advisory board members provides regular turnover of ideas and fresh passion for the organization.

Second, members must be able to assume leadership roles within the advisory group. Defining positions such as chairperson and vice chairperson rewards key members, as the organization benefits from their commitment and effort.

Finally, training opportunities such as seminars and one-on-one coaching in areas such as fundraising and event planning can be vital tools. They allow the members to expand their roles and provide the organization with enhanced information and skills that prove useful in advisory committees.