Advisory committees let your nonprofit work with others who want to see you succeed.
As a nonprofit leader, you likely want to do your best to ensure that the voices and experiences of the communities you serve are represented in your work. Often, this means conducting periodic focus groups, needs assessments, or surveys.1 While all of these are useful tools for program development and planning, there is another strategy that provides consistent access to community input while also routinely building a supportive foundation from diverse, innovative ideas: the creation of strong advisory committees.
What are advisory committees?
At their core, advisory committees are groups of individuals who are stakeholders in your nonprofit’s work and who want to play a role in ensuring you achieve maximum impact. Having one (or more) active and highly functioning advisory committees fosters resilience, creativity, and even resource development for your organization.
Unlike the board of directors, which has oversight of the organization, advisory committees don’t have any oversight of the organization. Instead, they serve as partners in your work, representing the community you serve and even boosting the productivity of your workforce.
How to Establish Successful Advisory Committees
By now, I’m sure you’re all on board (pun intended) with the importance of building these community partnerships. But wait! Before you run off and start recruiting, here are 5 key principles to take into consideration prior to establishing these committees.
1. Define the advisory committee’s focus.
It is important for the committee to have a clear content or operational focus. Perhaps you want a committee comprised solely of people with lived experience related to your nonprofit’s mission—i.e. people who have experienced houselessness or survivors of domestic and/or sexual violence. This kind of advisory committee might be crucial in making sure the programs your organization implements actually serve the community effectively.
Alternately, you might be thinking about building an advisory committee around advocacy.2 Say you’re a nonprofit working in the area of houselessness and want to put together an advisory committee of people with legislative and policy development experience to advance systemic changes in your community. In this case, you might look towards people who have experience either with the legislative process or with advancing public policy through coalition building, for example.
Notably, both of these advisory committees have different foci (that should absolutely be defined in advance). So, as you work to define your advisory committee’s focus, ask yourself and your team:
- What type of experience and knowledge do we need more of to carry out our mission?
- What voices are not well represented at the table that we want to ensure have a presence in our work?
- Are there particular community partners who we want to engage with more deeply in order to expand the work we do?
These questions should help you make sure you are recruiting people with the right skill sets who can represent experiences and voices that you may not have on your staff.
My organization itself has eight established advisory committees, each focusing on a different area of expertise and aspect of sexual violence prevention and response. Because we offer expert training and technical assistance across the continuum of sexual violence prevention and response (as well as to a wide variety of professions in both nonprofit and public service systems), having so many advisory committees ensures that we are collaborating with people working in all aspects of the sexual violence field. We have committees solely focused on the prevention of violence, the medical-forensic response to assault victims, and cultures of sexual violence and response on college and university campuses (among others). Each of these committees draw individuals from various disciplines and backgrounds to help guide different aspects of our work.
Admittedly, eight advisory committees is a lot for most organizations! More likely, you will want to start with just one or two and see where you can go from there.
2. Consider what perspectives are important (and outreach accordingly).
There’s nothing wrong with putting out a broad recruitment announcement for committee members, but that shouldn’t be the only way that you build your committee membership. After all, general announcements may not reach the people and organizations that are important to your work.
Instead, make a list of what community partner organizations intersect with the work that you are doing. Consider directly asking to see if someone from their team would consider participating in your committee. Say your organization is focused on eliminating food insecurity; you likely have allies from other community-based organizations that would be interested in being a part of your advisory committee, including organizations focused on child health and wellness, financial education and stability, and housing. Look to the intersectional problems faced by the community you serve and backtrack from there.
Similarly, assuming your organization has a commitment and practice to inclusion, representation, and equity in your work (and I sure hope that you all do), be sure to make connections to other programs that are both led by and work in service to specific populations. Invite those programs to the table and find out how you can also support the work they are doing.
If your nonprofit is working on climate justice, for example, a diverse advisory committee can help ensure your work considers the way climate policies and practices impact populations differently across age, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and other important identity categorizations. At the end of the day, an inclusive advisory committee is critical for meaningful impact and reach across your larger community.
3. Create structure.
Structure is crucial to developing and sustaining an effective advisory committee. However, structure does not have to mean rigidity. In fact, your committee’s structure should be flexible enough to adapt to your nonprofit’s changing needs and dynamics.
At the same time, having agreements and guides in place will help ensure committee members know what is expected of them and how to successfully work together. You may want to consider creating a committee manual (or something similar). This document might include:
- Membership Information—How many members is optimal for the committee?
- Scope—What is the focus of the committee’s work (see principle #1)?
- Time Commitment—How often will the committee meet?
- Oversight—Will the organization’s staff facilitate committee meetings, or will the committee elect a chair/co-chairs?
- Decision-Making Process—What steps for proper decision making in the committee?
- Tenure—How long can someone serve on the committee?
- Compensation—Is there compensation for serving on the committee, or is it entirely voluntary?
Documentation of answers to these questions is important because the time you have with your advisory committee members is very valuable and likely limited. You’ll want to make sure it is well spent—having structural agreements and processes in place will help meetings run more efficiently. Also, potential committee members will surely want to know what they are signing up before making a commitment, so it’s good to have answers to these questions at the ready. Transparency and clarity (regarding time and scope) ensure that members know what they are signing on to and can make an informed commitment while also decreasing the possibility that they will back out in the future.
4. Provide your advisory committee with clearly defined projects and activities.
There are few things more important to the overall engagement and functioning of an advisory committee than this principle. Too often, advisory committee members show up, listen to a staff person talk, and then leave without feeling as though they have actually been given a chance to contribute.
Members must be well-utilized, and the impact of their presence needs to be communicated. Tokenizing or sidelining advisory committee input will not help your work and will likely harm community partnerships. The value in advisory committees is amplified when all members are given equitable space to share knowledge, contribute individual skills, and know that their presence is making an impact. Remember, each member is likely taking time away from other work or life tasks to participate. They deserve to see how their commitment is being utilized by your nonprofit to further your collective goals.
Appropriately using your advisory committee’s expertise means that when you are creating your advisory committee, you should consider what new resource/s or product/s your organization is putting together. Bring these items to your advisory committee to give them time to look it over and provide tangible feedback, edits, and recommendations. Then, make sure they know how their work was incorporated once the product is completed.
Another aspect of utilizing your advisory committee is involving them in organizational strategic planning. Solicit their knowledge to help you identify gaps in the work you are doing and strategize how to fill them. Use their presence and connections to help you identify and connect with new partners in your work.
At every stage, an advisory committee should be actively influencing your programs and policies. After all, they can serve as a conduit of critical community input when planning organizational goals and outcomes. Their feedback should be recursive and ongoing, helping you to constantly tweak your programs and policies to best serve your communities.
5. Ensure that your committee members know their value and impact.
Have you ever contributed time and energy to a project only to never find out if (and/or how) your contributions were ever utilized? Such an experience can be incredibly demoralizing and will almost surely lead to opting out of participation in the future.
As discussed in the previous principle, it is critical to be intentional about communicating full circle with advisory committee members about their impact. For example, if the committee has provided feedback on a work product, be sure to build in time to future meetings to let them know how that feedback was incorporated. Show not only how their input influenced the final product but also how that final product is being used. On the other hand, if you choose not to use all of their feedback—sometimes this happens—let them know why. Practice transparency in your decision-making processes so members and staff can learn together.
As previously implied, this communication loop should happen regularly throughout the year, but you also may want to consider annual (at a minimum) reflection on the work of the advisory committee and their value. This will explicitly convey the value of their participation and let members know how their contributions are making an impact on the issues your organization is working to address.
Work in Collaboration, Not Competition
When done well, maintaining one (or more!) advisory committees will ensure that your organization’s work is not being done siloed off from, but rather in collaboration with, others who want to see you succeed. Advisory committee members can become your biggest champions while also providing critical and necessary feedback on nearly any kind of work product or project that you are undertaking.
An inclusive and engaged advisory committee has the potential to increase quality, reach, and overall impact of your nonprofit’s work on a consistent basis. Such inclusive engagement benefits both your organization and the community you serve in the long run!
- Check out this article for how to use feedback to create community-centered services! ↩︎
- For more on the role of advocacy in nonprofits, check out this article. ↩︎
About the Author
Shannon Rose (she/her) is the Executive Director of the Oregon Attorney General's Sexual Assault Task Force (SATF). She has been working with and advocating alongside survivors of violence and trauma since 2005. Her early career experiences in nonprofits as a direct service advocate, crisis program coordinator, and shelter manager cemented an understanding that we cannot prevent violence and abuse or create systems that provide healing and justice without survivor voices and expertise at the center of our work.
In addition to nonprofit experience, Shannon spent nearly 12 years in county and state government, specializing in sexual and domestic violence education, public policy, and program development. During her time in the public sector, Shannon built bridges across service systems by developing programs and partnerships at the intersections of sexual and domestic violence with disability, aging, veterans' needs, substance use treatment centers, immigrant and refugee supports, and other service systems.
Shannon holds a B.A. in Human Communication and a M.S. in Human Services/Counseling Studies. She also has advanced education in trauma-informed services, project management, and addictions counseling but considers herself a curious and eager lifelong learner.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.