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LIGHTS Regional Network Focus: Five Ways to Engage Program Advisory Boards


As a network of 10 Innovation Gateways, LIGHTS partners take many forms. Whether they are higher education institutional initiatives or non-profit organizations, most face advisory board issues and the opportunities/challenges they provide.

The hope is that advisory board members will offer time, talent, and oftentimes treasure for the Gateways. So, how do you best engage your board?

1. Set expectations regarding being an advisory board versus a board of directors. The difference is that advisory boards have no formal fiduciary responsibility and can be ad hoc in nature. In other words, they are meant to advise on specific issues rather than govern. If an advisory board believes that they must control the Executive Director, then the situation gets dicey when it comes to making organizational decisions primarily left to a board of directors. Make sure you work to have a chair of the board who you can easily work with and who understands what advisory means.

2. Work with your governing board to establish your advisory board's "purpose, duration, guidelines for membership, the skills and knowledge its members will contribute and how it will interact with the nonprofit and its board of directors." Read more here.

3. Advisory Board Meetings should always have an agenda. Never focus the agenda on items that are fiduciary in nature (i.e., full financial statements, executive staff personnel discussions) rather focus attention on areas where you need guidance. When running a makerspace, as an example, provide data on what the community says they want (and will pay for), but ask the advisory board to validate the data anecdotally. In the example of Building Bridges to Careers, the board members provide valuable equipment purchase advice (and donations) and training session guidance.

4. Be at the forefront of each adviser's mind. As the Director of your organization, develop your own thoughtful relationships with advisers. Meet frequently enough to keep your adviser updated and informed so that when they think of a resource or asset that may call upon to further your mission, it is always fresh in their minds. Think about it. Given our age of constant information overload, how many times do you have to hear something before it sinks in? Your advisers face the same challenge.

5. Make sure to fully utilize members by asking them lots of questions about their abilities. My favorite example is Tasha Werry, Building Bridges to Careers Executive Director. Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google once said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.” It worked for him and it works for Tasha. She seeks individuals with the answers. When I first met Tasha, I was at a community event in Marietta when she wanted to establish a business incubator. I watched with awe as this woman continuously sought expert advice from those in the room. Every single person's opinion counted. I knew Tasha was smart because she knew how to ask questions.

Having an advisory board is a lot of work; however, benefits often outweigh the costs. Be clear. Be honest. And, be vulnerable enough to not know it all.


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