28 Feb The Role of Advisory Committees
28 February 2023
By David Allen, Development for Conservation
In the conservation community, and for land trusts in particular, the work is “in perpetuity” – forever. So, if our work will never end, neither can our organizations. They must be perpetual as well. And because none of us are perpetual, this implies that we must develop and maintain good systems for self-perpetuation.
In other words, our Board members won’t be there forever, but the Board as a whole must be. Otherwise the work many of us have devoted our lives to will be ultimately compromised.
The most important tool for self-renewal is term limits. I’ve written about this before (See On Term Limits – Take 2, and Implementing Term Limits is No Accident).
The second most important tool is an Advisory Group. (It will need a better name, but I would resist calling them an advisory “board,” to avoid confusion with the governing board.) This Advisory “Committee” will need its own personality, systems, and work to do.
Let’s talk about the last one first. What should an Advisory Committee do?
- Stay informed; receive basic Board packet information: agendas, minutes, information on policy debates and decisions. Committee members should annually sign the same confidentiality and conflict-of-interest statements that Board members sign. But they should otherwise enjoy “trusted insider” status. In this case, “receive” could be interpreted as “have access to,” meaning that the information could be on-line with password-protected links.
- Meet at least once each year. This could be a special meeting, it could be an “annual meeting,” or it might be a joint meeting with the Board of Directors at which the organizational Strategic Plan is being reported on and discussed.
- Participation in Board events such as topical training workshops, field tours of potential projects, Holiday receptions, organizational birthday parties, and so on.
- Participate in organizational Strategic Planning. Advisors could at least be surveyed and interviewed, and they might even participate along with Board members in the development of strategic questions in some structured way.
Those are the basics, but individual Advisors could be involved in many other ways as well: serving on Board committees and ad-hoc working groups, planning and leading field trips, hosting community events, volunteering on a “speakers bureau,” and so on. And helping to raise money, of course! Advisors will not have the same levels of time commitment as Board members, and they need not support the organization financially (though we hope they will elect to do so!).
Participation on an Advisory Committee should not be assumed, but rather should be periodically reaffirmed. Consider that this might be a good job for the Vice-Chair or Secretary – officer positions that often do not have significant roles otherwise. There should be a written job description as well as a charter for the group as a whole, so people understand what they are being asked to do.
Once the Advisory Committee exists, it will attract three different kinds of people:
- Emeritus Board members. People who have served the organization as Board members, but whose terms have expired. Perhaps this is a way for them to stay involved for three or four years while waiting to become eligible again for Board service.
- Prospective Board members. People you would like to consider for Board positions in the future, but perhaps aren’t ready for the time commitment at this time. They might enjoy the opportunity to learn more about the organization in a less pressured way. Consider that this might include specific targeted recruitment to meet geographic, topical expertise, or DEI objectives. How nice would it be to anticipate the loss of a Board member to term limits and have several replacements ready and waiting on the Advisory Committee?
- Topical expertise. Many field scientists don’t want to help raise money. Some investment advisors don’t have available bandwidth to attend twelve meetings each year. In other words, some potential Board members aren’t interested in shouldering the entirety of Board responsibilities. Recruiting such expertise to the Advisory Board means that you have it available when needed without asking for the moon and stars at the same time.
To some extent, getting a new Advisory Committee off the ground will be a significant effort. Perhaps this could be a job delegated to a Board member leaving the Board. But once it’s up and running, it should actually save time in finding and recruiting new Board members, chasing down necessary expertise, finding volunteer events hosts, and so on.
And if it adds another layer of sustainability to your organization, well that will have been worth it as well.
If you have an Advisory Group, I’d love to hear how you are using it, and how it’s working for you. What advice can you add to the above?
Cheers, and have a great week!
PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.
Photo by JPlenio, courtesy pixabay.com
Jennifer KisselPosted at 08:05h, 08 March
All good points, thanks! At the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, we have an engaged Emerging Leaders Advisory Board. These are people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who care about conserving land, water and wildlife and who love to volunteer and leverage their networks to support our mission. They get to network with other young leaders and learn how nonprofits function. Lots of good energy! https://waterlandlife.org/volunteer/western-pennsylvania-conservancys-emerging-leaders-advisory-committee/
David AllenPosted at 10:20h, 08 March
Jennifer – LOVE this idea. Thank you for sharing it.
Brent BaileyPosted at 08:23h, 28 February
Thanks for this, David. The West Virginia Land Trust is about to enter its first rotation with term limits, and this kind of structure would provide a good opportunity for ongoing connection for those “departers” who remain interested, as well as some of our allies (as you suggest) who might not be looking for the the bigger commitment of board work..
Can you explain this part a little more?: “Participation on an Advisory Committee should not be assumed, but rather should be periodically reaffirmed.” Does this mean that Advisory Committee members should have term limits as well?
David AllenPosted at 08:48h, 28 February
No term limits for advisors! But periodic engagement assessments are appropriate. These people should not be just letterhead fillers. If it has been several years since we last heard from so-and-so, it might be appropriate to check in with them to make sure their participation is still an interest. This implies that SOMEONE has to notice their participation (or lack thereof).
Thanks for the question, Brent!