The ROIs of Advisory Boards

If your institution is like most, members of your advancement team help to plan, implement, and engage an advisory board of some sort.  Perhaps it is an alumni board, a parents’ council, an programmatic advisory board, or an institution-wide advisory board.  Whatever the form, these groups take valuable time, energy, and resources from the staff and budget.  As anyone knows who has engaged advisory boards, it is no small feat to make the experience meaningful for them and for the institution.

Advisory groups of any sort are an odd bunch.  Since they don’t have governing and fiduciary responsibilities, the members often are viewed as less “official” than governing board members.  As part of this perception, many institutions do not solicit members of advisory boards to make annual gifts.  “If you join this advisory board,” I’ve heard it said, “I’ll make sure the institution won’t solicit you.”  Space permits me from listing all the reasons why this is horrible logic – but I’ll give one fundamental reason:  ROI.

How do you establish a Return on Investment for planning, implementing, and following-up with advisory board meetings and for stewarding the members of your advisory boards?   Even if your institution doesn’t have a stated aversion for asking advisory board members for gifts, you may struggle to figure out how to gauge the effectiveness of your advisory boards.

Let me suggest 3 return on investment judgments that make advisory boards, “worth your while,” over the long term:

  1. Your advisory board is providing your governing board with new, productive members.  A mature advisory board serves as a “proving ground” of sorts for future governing board members.  Not only do we get to learn more about the individual during her stint on our advisory board, but we get to see how well she plays with others, and how generous a spirit she is.  If your advisory board is producing 1 quality board member – only 1 –  every couple of years, it is serving your institution well.
  2. Your advisory board is producing major gift income.  A high-functioning advisory board is, at its heart, a vehicle for major gift cultivation.  It provides an institution with an opportunity to educate and engage major gift prospects in the life of the institution in a formal way.  In between the meetings, it is up to the institution’s leaders to cultivate, solicit, and steward these prospects.  If your institution receives at least 1 major gift – only 1 –  each year from the membership of your advisory board, it is well worth keeping.
  3. Your advisory board is opening up new relationships for the institution.  An effective advisory board is populated with members who have spheres of influence outside the bounds of the institution’s current reach.  Additionally, members of an effective advisory board are willing to open the doors to these new relationships.  If your institution receives at least 1 major gift – only 1 – from a relationship spawned from the work of an advisory board member, it is producing an acceptable return on investment.

Institutions regularly behave as though they forget why advisory boards are beneficial.  Yes, we want advice and feedback.  But we can gather advice and feedback in far less expensive ways.  Yes, we want to increase the number of champions for our institution.  But we can grow champions with fewer staff members involved.  And, no, the goal of advisory boards should not be to grow more “worker bee” volunteers for our institutions.

Ultimately, advisory boards are major gift cultivation vehicles that also serve as training grounds for future governance leaders.  If your institution isn’t meeting the above ROI standards, it typically means that your advisory boards aren’t populated with the right people of  influence and affluence.  By attracting and retaining high gift capacity individuals to our advisory boards, we will increase the ROI for our institutions.  It really only takes 1.

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