Ingredients of a Successful Advisory Council

In our consulting practice we are often working with organizations that have an advisory council, or are considering one, so we’ve developed what we see as a list of essential ingredients for a successful advisory council:

Clearly delineate what level of responsibility and authority the advisory council has

It’s important to be clear, right from the very start, that boards of directors and advisory councils (or advisory boards) are not the same thing, but the roles and responsibilities can sometimes become confused. The members of a board of directors serve as fiduciaries with primary responsibility for advancing the organization’s mission and ensuring the legal accountability for its operations. An advisory council’s authority is usually limited to giving advice and counsel to the governing board or staff and, sometimes, providing some level of oversight to one of the organization’s programs. Be sure the relationship between the advisory council and the parent organization are clearly defined (ideally in writing) and understood by all.

Know what it is that the advisory council exists to do and why it is important

Can you clearly articulate the purpose of the advisory council? Can you explain to others what difference the advisory council makes? Can you describe what value they bring? If you can’t respond positively to these questions in a convincing manner, perhaps you shouldn’t be establishing an advisory council.

Identify what kinds of skills, experience, and knowledge you need on your advisory council and then get strategic about recruiting to meet your needs

Advisory committees are a great opportunity to engage people from across the community and bring a diversity of experiences and voices to the work. The most successful advisory committees recruit successfully to achieve their diversity goals at the same time as they recruit to get the skills, experience, and knowledge they need around their table. Get clear about what you need to accomplish as an advisory council (or as an organization) and recruit people with the skills, experience, and knowledge to help you get there.

Make sure everyone is clear about roles and responsibilities

Take the time to develop a “job description” for advisory council members that clearly describes your expectations, their responsibilities, and just how much authority they have as a body. You might also consider engaging them in shaping expectations of members. This can be as simple as asking, “what do we expect of each other?” The document you develop will clarify expectations for current members and will be a helpful tool during recruitment.

Provide your advisory council with meaningful work and the tools and support to do it

Most people who join an advisory council want to make a difference. Are you engaging them in meaningful discussions and providing them with the opportunity to offer input? Do your meetings focus on issues of strategic importance? Are they leaving your meetings with work to do that takes full advantage of their skills and abilities? And are you giving them the tools and the support they need in order to be successful at their assignments?

Ensure there is an appropriate “bridge” to the parent organization (or board)

Serving on an advisory council can be a disappointing experience if no one is listening to the advice you are offering. Advisory council members will want to know how their work and the advice they are offering is being communicated to the board or is influencing organizational decisions. Be clear about the lines of communication and build in a feedback loop so they know that their voices have been heard and their input appreciated.

The decision to establish an advisory council should not be taken lightly. Take time to explore other helpful tips regarding advisory councils by reviewing our consultants’ advice in the blog section of our Starboard website: To talk to a member of our consulting team about the pros and cons of advisory councils, as well as the pitfalls to avoid, use our contact form to begin the conversation