Q: We were wondering if you had a basic description of an advisory board? We have such a board, but there are some differences of opinion about what its purpose should be.

A: First, let me say that I’m glad you all agree that there should be a purpose. Far too many organizations create “advisory boards” with little intent other than to use them as a dumping ground for those who are no longer productively serving the organization. They typically label the individuals on these “boards” as “honorary” – implying value to the organization – but then never use them in a meaningful way, Without a clearly defined purpose, these individuals soon drift away – and generally not happily as they are all too aware that these advisory boards are and always were a sham.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Advisory boards can be very effective if there is a valid reason d’être and the members understand how their charge will positively impact the organization. That charge may be different for different organizations. Some organizations use these groups as a source of technical advice. For instance, a voluntary health organization might pull together physicians and scientists who specialize in a related field and rely on them to make educated decisions about how best to allocate the organization’s research dollars. Other organizations use advisory groups as a way to involve more – or a different group of – people. Commonly, this is where an organization will bring in big names to facilitate its fundraising. The key is, the groups must have clearly defined responsibilities that play a very real role in helping the organization further its mission and vision. As indicated above, this is true even when the group is being used as a means to “kick people upstairs.”

Along with clear responsibilities, I have found it is valuable to have this group meet periodically and to get regular updates about the organization – its successes and concerns. It is rarely fulfilling to work in a vacuum. People need to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. They need to feel that the organization and other individuals rely on their efforts. It doesn’t hurt to build in recognition for your advisors, either!

In my mind, there is one other issue that should be considered here and that is the name you choose for this group. Personally, I have always been very uncomfortable with “board.” You have one legal board. Multiple “boards” can get very confusing. And, when you really rely on your advisory group to advise, the people giving the advice expect that you’ll take it. If your board – the legal one – has a different view of how to proceed, you can get caught up in an ugly battle. Better to come up with a totally unrelated moniker such as community resource council or something related to its task, such as a scientific advisory panel.