It is important to be clear about the difference between a board of directors (or board of trustees) and an “advisory council,” and it is especially important that the members of your advisory council know the difference. It is not uncommon for advisory council members to want to become engaged in the work of the board or, collectively, begin acting like one, and that is when real problems occur for your organization.
An advisory council, or advisory committee, is made-up of volunteers who advise or support an organization or one of its programs. Large nonprofit entities like universities or hospitals can conceivably have several advisory bodies serving different important purposes, where as a smaller organization might have a single advisory group in addition to the board.
Unlike the governing board (board of directors or trustees), the advisory group does not have fiscal responsibility. Nor do they have primary responsibility for furthering the organization’s mission or legal accountability for its operations. Advisory councils typically have their authority limited to giving advice or counsel to the board of the organization, the CEO or executive director, or members of the staff who are responsible for specific programs.
To help keep the distinction clear, we advise our clients to avoid calling their advisory group an “advisory board.” The word “advisory” is good—it reminds them what their role is—but use something like “council” or “committee” with it. A name like “National Advisory Council” has a level of stature to it, while “ACO Advisory Council” gets more specific.
Choosing the right name for your advisory group is only part of the battle, but it is an important start in the challenging task of clearly defining the role of your advisory group. Choose wisely!