Example advisory board guidelines

Many organizations include an advisory board – a group of people to give advice to the organization and lend their social capital to the organization. However, the position of advisor to an organization is often not well-defined, and advisors often need specific guidelines on how much or how little to say or do when acting as an advisor for an organization.

This document is a template for guidelines for members of an advisory board to a non-profit that solicits donations. It was originally written for a U.S.-based non-profit supporting women in open technology and culture, the Ada Initiative, and can be easily adapted to the needs of many non-profits. With more work, it may be adapted to advisory boards for other types of organizations (e.g., for-profit organizations that do not solicit donations).

License and attribution

This document is Copyright 2011 – 2017 The Ada Initiative, Inc. and was primarily written by Mary Gardiner, co-founder and Deputy Executive Director of the Ada Initiative, with input from other members of the organization. It may be freely reused and modified under the terms of the Creative Commons Sharealike-Attribution 4.0 license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

Suggested credit and licensing text to include in your guidelines is at the end of this document.

Example advisory board guidelines

This document is for [ORGANIZATION] advisors, to help them understand expectations of the advisory board, the ways that they can help, and how to deal with difficult situations.

This document isn’t intended to be intimidating: if you don’t understand some part of it please discuss it with the advisors list ([ADVISORS EMAIL LIST]) or the directors ([EXECUTIVE STAFF EMAIL LIST]).

CONFIDENTIAL: please do not distribute this document to anyone not a member of [ORGANIZATION] advisors board.

Short version

  1. You should be doing at least one of these 5 things: help with governance, help with mission, help with business advice, help with fundraising, help by lending us your name and reputation.
  2. Your fellow advisors are here to help you too, not just [ORGANIZATION]! Feel free to email the advisors list or other advisors privately to ask for advice, help, etc. [ADD ANY OTHER BENEFITS HERE]
  3. You should feel absolutely comfortable leaving the advisors board at any point and for any reason.  We expect a turnover rate of at least 25% per year simply due to having changes in personal obligations, crises, change in priorities, etc.
  4. You should keep [ORGANIZATION] business confidential unless explicitly informed otherwise.
  5. Other than statements in line with our mission public statements, you should not speak for [ORGANIZATION], or make promises of our time or money — even tentative ones — without reviewing it with leadership, especially in public (Twitter, blogs, etc.). “As an advisor to [ORGANIZATION]” is phrase to watch out for (unless it is followed by something like “I think [ORGANIZATION PROGRAM] is amazing” or “you should donate now” :) ).
  6. You can contact other advisors, management or the board of directors with any concerns.

Involvement

You are expected to do one or more of the following as an [ORGANIZATION] advisor:

  1. assist us with governance, eg as a member of the board of directors
  2. assist us with fulfilling our mission by providing perspective on our activities, or being an interface between us and a community of interest
  3. assist us with business advice, such as legal advice, administrative advice, fundraising advice
  4. assist us with fundraising outreach, either by being a fundraising representative or introducing us to potential program partners or potential donors
  5. lend us your reputation and credibility by simply associating yourself with us

You should help us publicise major activities when you can; for example, re-tweeting big announcements, forwarding them to relevant mailing lists, helping us build outreach lists, introducing us to people who can help with projects and so on.

As a rough guide to activity levels, if you are spending fewer than 5 hours a month on [ORGANIZATION] for several months, and you don’t warn us of temporary inactivity, we may ask you to step down.

We do not require donations from you or specify fundraising goals for you. However, if you are in a position to donate and to publicise your donation, it helps a lot with our fundraising. If you are influential in relevant organizations but feel that you can’t recommend to them that they fund us, you shouldn’t be on the advisory board.

Perks

One of the rewards of being an [ORGANIZATION] advisor is access to your fellow advisors. :) Please feel free to use the advisors mailing list or directly contact any other advisor for any vaguely relevant purpose.  Advisors frequently use each other to review papers, get speaking engagements, meet people when traveling, get career advice, and more.  You’re part of a special group of awesome people; take advantage of it!

[ANY OTHER PERKS GO HERE]

Leaving the advisory board

We understand that you may not always have time or energy for us! You may also find that your expertise doesn’t align with our needs, or that you’re not willing to be associated with us so closely, or one of a number of things.

It is very important to step down when you can’t participate.  The advisory board is of limited size and we need new blood on a regular basis.  You are doing both yourself and us a favor by stepping down when you have less time or interest.

Email [EXECUTIVE STAFF EMAIL LIST] to let us know. Thanks for your help to date! (And you can of course stay in touch and volunteer on an ad hoc basis.)

Privacy

Please keep emails to the advisors list, and emails between yourself and [ORGANIZATION] staff confidential. If in doubt, ask.

We prefer, if possible, that you use a personal and private email address for advisors emails. This is because the advisors list often hosts confidential discussions, and corporate emails may be monitored by your organization. Additionally, if you switch jobs, it’s possible our emails will end up going to your boss or to your replacement.

For both privacy and workload reasons, please always follow double opt-in email etiquette when introducing [ORGANIZATION] staff members or other advisory board members to others outside the organization.

Representing [ORGANIZATION]

Part of your work as an advisor is representing [ORGANIZATION]. Please feel free to describe any of these publicly or to the press while identifying yourself as an [ORGANIZATION] advisor:

  • your own experiences as a [MEMBER OF ORGANIZATION’S TARGET COMMUNITY]
  • [ORGANIZATION]’s mission
  • [ORGANIZATION]’s public statements and announced programs and events
  • your reasons for getting involved and staying involved with [ORGANIZATION]
  • your reasons for donating (if you do)

We ask that if you correspond with the press about us, you copy [ORGANIZATION PRESS EMAIL ADDRESS].

We do not require that you describe yourself as an [ORGANIZATION] advisor in any particular circumstance, although if you are completely unwilling for us or third parties to describe you that way, you can’t be on the advisory board.

However, [ORGANIZATION] is different from a community volunteer project and needs a strong leadership structure and careful consideration of any public statement. Please avoid speaking on our behalf in person, on social media, to the press, in a talk, a paper, or anything else on anything that is or is reasonably likely to be controversial, or when making any kind of time or money commitment. This includes you responding to criticism of us. When in doubt, either check with [EXECUTIVE STAFF EMAIL LIST] (preferred) or use clear disclaimers like “speaking as a private individual…” or “without speaking for [ORGANIZATION]…”.

As long as you make reasonable efforts to make sure that you’re known to be speaking for only yourself, we don’t place any restrictions on your speaking about us in public, other than not sharing confidential info. You may publicly criticise us if you wish, although obviously a serious difference of opinion might mean that you may choose to leave as an advisor or we may ask you to leave.

Please don’t promise anyone our time or money even if their project is an obvious good fit: we have limited resources! If you’d like us to help a person or project out, please email [EXECUTIVE STAFF EMAIL LIST] with a short description of what you’re hoping we’ll do, and we will let you know whether to go forward with introduction emails and so on.

Please don’t step in to help resolve an apparent conflict without checking with the directors first. Not all our conflicts are simple misunderstandings and not all are easily resolved; there might be things going on behind the scenes that you don’t know about. If someone is criticising us and you think you can help, send [EXECUTIVE STAFF EMAIL LIST] a heads-up and we’ll let you know if you can help us sort it out.

Concerns about [ORGANIZATION]

You may raise concerns with [ORGANIZATION]’s management, goals, projects, etc., through any of these channels:

  1. mailing the advisors list
  2. mailing [EXECUTIVE STAFF EMAIL LIST] (reaches executive staff only)
  3. mailing the board of directors [BOARD OF DIRECTORS EMAIL LIST] (note, the board membership may include some executive staff)
  4. (as a last resort, if your complaint involves serious difficulties with a board member) mailing one or more individual board members [URL OF BOARD MEMBERS LIST]

Please note that if you mail individual board members, they might not be able to keep your identity secret from the rest of the board; you will need to discuss it with them on a case-by-case basis.

Specific warnings

In general we reserve the right to publicly criticise sponsors and donors, and to reject sponsors. Informally, the criteria is [CRITERIA FOR REJECTING SPONSORS]. Specific examples:

  • [ANY SPECIFIC EXAMPLES OF SPONSORS YOU HAVE REJECTED]

We ask that you do not comment about [ORGANIZATION] to a small number of journalists:

  1. [ANY JOURNALISTS YOU DO NOT WORK WITH]

There are several people in our space who are consistently critical of [ORGANIZATION], or who we can’t partner with right now.

We don’t ask that you personally dissociate from these people! We note this so that you know that not to suggest a partnership between us and them, or ask or expect them to support us. To repeat: just because [ORGANIZATION] cannot work with them at this time, does not mean that you personally must dissociate from them, dislike them, or not work with them! They are:

  • [ANY PEOPLE IN YOUR SPACE YOU CAN’T WORK WITH]

Some of our former volunteers quietly left on less than ideal terms due to disagreements with [ORGANIZATION] on specific incidents, but they did not make any public statement criticizing [ORGANIZATION]. Please don’t ask them for support — donations, advice, etc. — or invite them to collaborate with [ORGANIZATION], out of respect for their feelings.

  • [ANY FORMER VOLUNTEERS WHO DON’T SUPPORT YOUR ORG]

Some people are supportive of specific levels of activism in our area, but have specifically identified [ORGANIZATION] as too radical or specifically don’t support our programs. They aren’t unfriendly or enemies, just not people to ask for support.

  • [ANY PEOPLE WHO ARE ACTIVE IN YOUR SPACE BUT DON’T SUPPORT YOUR PROGRAMS]

Credit and license

This document is licensed Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

Original source https://adainitiative.org/example-advisory-board-guidelines/

Copyright 2011 – 2017 Ada Initiative, Inc.

Copyright [YEAR] [YOUR NAME OR ORGANIZATION]