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They are volunteers, too!
Look here for information and the latest techniques to develop your board or committee. The purpose is to help those who work or serve on nonprofit boards of directors or committees.

~June 2009~

Advisory Boards and Committees: Roles and Responsibilites

        Advisory groups-board, committee, council—are rampant in many places that utilize volunteers.  Most hospital volunteer programs have an advisory council, county and city government use volunteers to advise on issues ranging from parks and recreation to planning.  Citizen volunteers step up to represent stakeholder groups for a variety of reasons;  a personal interest in the mission of the organization, perceived political influence, wanting to learn more about and issue, and many more.  No matter the group it is essential to clarify in written material, training, and operations the role of the members as differentiated from the governance body of a board of directors.  Failing to do this can create confusion for staff and volunteers.  This dilutes the impact a well-run advisory group has, as members and staff flay around trying to figure out roles and responsibilities.  Here are some tips of a general nature to guide someone training and/or managing members of an advisory body about their roles and responsibilities.

         In a general way the advisory body provides a window into the community the organization serves and allows members to be a public relations tool in clarifying the aims and activities of the organization to the community.  Advisory members can sometimes assist in such things as program and fund development, too.

         Member engagement will vary.  There will be members with deep commitment who can be relied on to take on additional responsibilities and others who show up for meetings only.  In the later case it may be the person’s connections that are important or their penetrating questions.  It is a rare member who has nothing to contribute.

Advisory Board Responsibilities

The first and most important thing for members of an advisory body to remember is that they do not have any legal authority, therefore all of their responsibilities are assigned at the discretion of the legal entity that appointed them—a board of directors, elected body, or a departmental administrator. The organization should have a well-defined statement of roles and responsibilities available to potential members prior to the appointment.  It is easy for an advisory body member to be confused if they have previously served on a governance board.  The member may think they have legal authority.  Disabuse them of the notion immediately.  Their influence is only advisory.

Separating an advisory role from  policy management role is a fine line which must be defined when the volunteer is recruited The internal day-to-day management and operation of an organization is not the function of an advisory board (or a governance board) unless the staff solicits input. If the operation, management and performance, is below desired levels the advisory body has an obligation to provide feedback to the staff and actively seek resolution of the deficiencies.

         As with most things in the volunteer arena there are exceptions.  Many library boards hire directors and set policy.  There are some small government agencies with advisory bodies that have the equivalent of governance authority, despite the fact that employees work for a government entity.  It is essential that staff working with advisory groups consult documents on the statutory nature of the appointment of members and their duties and limitations.



Members  have a responsibility to be well informed

  1. Understand the goals and objectives of the organization, agency or governmental entity
  2. Know the statutory or by-laws that guide operation
  3.  A clear knowledge of programs and financing arrangements of the organization.



Members serve as a sounding board for paid staff and stakeholders

  1. Members solicit feedback from the community and stakeholders on programs of the organization
  2.  Advise the paid staff on such things as program priorities, progress in meeting goals and objectives
  3. Provide advice and assistance to paid staff in addressing issues and concerns which may develop in relationship to the community, stakeholders, or funders.


Program Development and Review

  1. Provide advice on the design and plans for new programs
  2. Review the effectiveness of existing programs.
  3. Recommend changes or updates to existing program


Policy review and recommendations

  1. Advisory groups cannot create legally binding policy, but can advise on changes
  2. Review existing policy
  3. Recommend or conduct research on efficacy of existing policy
  4. Provide direction on policy to staff


Planning and Implementing Public Relations

  1. Plan activities to increase the visibility of the organization and its programs
  2. Participate in the public relations outreach efforts
  3. Engage in advocacy activities for the organization and its mission.

      Advisory groups and boards of directors are well served by having a working committee structure.  Advisory boards can develop sub-committees with specific task areas, like public relations.  This committee would be charged with the responsibility of bringing forward plans for awareness strategies.  These sub-committees can be ongoing or ad hoc.

               There needs to be constant communication between an individual program, its advisory board, the umbrella organization, and its board of directors or administrators. The ability to influence board policy with regard to a program's goals and objectives is directly affected by the program's visibility to the umbrella organization's leadership.

               Advisory groups with both advisory and policy management responsibilities such as hiring the agency director, performing evaluation of management, or approving contracts require a more active role on the part of appointed members. Such groups require the appointee to gain an in-depth understanding not only of the financing arrangements, but also of the operating policies and guidelines that contribute to the operation of the agency. However, the day-to-day management of the organization remains with the management staff. Advisory group members who activities interfere with daily operation and management are seldom welcomed and often resented by staff. Members need to be clear about their role and such clarity can only be gained through active discussion between the entire advisory group and the staff.

               One way to maintain clarity of roles is to always have written reports that provide historical records.  It helps everyone avoid misunderstandings often involved in verbal reports, and can provide continuity to future members appointed to the same group.

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