|Susan's Tip of the Month: Effective Advisory Bodies
Just because you form an advisory council or committee does not necessarily mean anyone wants advice (or plans to act on it)! Too often such groups are created for public relations, demonstrating to others, whether in-house or to the public, that you seek the opinions of key people. In almost all cases, advisors are volunteers. Are we applying good volunteer management principles to working with them?
Here are some questions to guide you in making advisory bodies effective. As always, the more time you spend planning and structuring, the more likely the group will be really helpful to you - and much more satisfying to the volunteer members.
- Do you want advice, decision-making, or hands-on help?
If you really need a group of people to do the work they will help you plan, don't mislabel the body as "advisory." That's bait-and-switch. Call it a steering committee or a coordinating team. On the other extreme, if what you truly want is expert advice or input from various perspectives to enable you to reach decisions that this group is not authorized to make, avoid the word "board." A board of directors votes and has authority. "Advisory board" is misleading and muddies the water as to the role of your true governing board and this non-decision-making advisory council.
- What is the overall, long-term purpose of having this group?
Unfortunately, a lot of organizations have advisory bodies in order to have advisory bodies. In other words, getting opinions or ideas is nice, but secondary to that public relations factor already mentioned. Define what you really want the outcome to be - or else form an "honorary council" or "supporter circle" and don't pretend to anyone that these people are doing anything else other than letting them use your name as a supporter. The latter may be extremely valuable, but be honest. One of my pet peeves is being recruited to join an advisory panel, see my name on official documents, but never be asked to meet or express an opinion. That's mis-"using" volunteers who actually offered to help.
- What are the specific short-term goals or tasks you need accomplished?
This will allow you to plan meeting agendas and get things done.
- Will this group be self-governing and self-perpetuating or will you be the chair? In general, what role do you expect to have in relation to the group?
- If the group is self-governing, who has the final say? Who controls the money?
There is not a right or a wrong way to answer these two questions, but you can see why they are important in terms of expectations and authority.
- Which constituencies do you want represented -- and why? Which constituencies do you not want to invite -- and why not?
- Who -- as individuals -- might be invited-and why? Who -- as individuals -- do you not want to invite-and why not?
- How will you go about selecting and inviting your preferred list of members?
The three sets of questions above can also be answered in many different ways, but make sure you intentionally decide what you want to do and why. There are no external rules about who should serve on an advisory group, but there may be very important issues that you want to deal with in developing a strategy for your situation.
- What is the position description of a member? Term of office? Will you want individual members to be specific advisors apart from their role in the group?
Sometimes we make the mistake of forming a great group of diverse people - recruited because they represent so many varied perspectives and areas of expertise - and then put them into a room to reach consensus! Why? As already noted, they do not have to make decisions or vote. So why not stop asking for a group reaction and concentrate instead on questions such as: What are all the pros and cons of this idea you can think of? What might be the best outcome of this action and the worst? When you define each member's role on the advisory body, include a request to be given, say, three hours a year of private time with him or her, apart from group meetings. That allows you to pick their brain on specific subjects which they know the most about.
- Where and when will you meet, and how often? Why?
- Will all discussions be in group meetings? Will you use electronic communication, and how?
- Who initiates agenda items?
- What action do you expect? What kinds of minutes/reports--sent to whom?
Again, no right or wrong answers, but these are valid questions. Finally:
- Are you ready for a permanent group or should you begin with a time-limited task force?
You can always convene a group of advisors to help you with a very specific project, for a limited time (even planning for a permanent advisory body). In fact, you'll get more willing volunteers if you need their input for six months rather than "forever."