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As the number of charitably inclined Gen Zers and philanthropically involved retirees skyrockets, it’s worth considering the benefits an advisory council could bring to your organization.

At its core, a nonprofit is about relationships. This, of course, begins with the people the nonprofit exists to serve. And as anyone with nonprofit experience can tell you, relationships with other stakeholders and advocates are crucial to long-term success. Naturally, some of the most important of those relationships are with its board of directors. Members of the board of directors, often referred to simply as “the board,” have fiduciary responsibilities to the nonprofit organization. They ensure the organization has a sustainable future by adopting sound, ethical, and legal governance. It is a serious responsibility, as members of a board of directors have legal responsibilities and meet frequently to act as a check on the full-time staff.

In addition to the board of directors, some nonprofits establish groups that offer expertise and assistance to help advance their missions. These groups are typically referred to as advisory boards or advisory councils, and their members do not act as fiduciaries for the organization or have strict legal commitments. It is surprising how rarely nonprofits establish advisory councils, as doing so can be a great way to engage people who deeply care about the organization. Nonprofit executives should think about how they structure their external leadership groups and consider adding advisory councils to broaden their networks. For the sake of branding and to avoid confusion, these groups are better designated “advisory councils” than “advisory boards,” as the latter might lead to confusion with the board of directors.

There are three principal reasons that an organization might need an advisory council:

Untapped Talent

A board of directors can only include so many people due to restrictions dictated in an organization’s bylaws and sometimes by the threat of overcrowding. While the number of board members may change over time and vary by each nonprofit, every organization almost certainly has more advocates eager to serve at a high capacity than it does seats on its board of directors. This is especially true with changing demographics in our society. Some studies suggest that Gen Z might just become one of the most charitable generations yet. However, with high inflation in recent years, student loan debt, and unaffordable housing, we should not expect younger donors to be giving large sums of money to nonprofits anytime soon.

In addition to a wave of younger people just beginning their professional careers, 2024 will see an influx of newly minted retirees. Referred to as “peak 65,” approximately 4.1 million Americans are poised to turn 65 this year and every year through 2027. It is an unprecedented time, as the nation has an enormous number of young people who want to volunteer and be involved with nonprofits, and simultaneously has millions of retired people who want belonging and things to do after leaving the workforce. Both of these age groups, and millions of people whose ages fall in between, possess a tremendous amount of untapped talent. These are people who seek to give, volunteer, and formally join nonprofits. Invitations to serve on advisory  councils could spark their interest and solidify their allegiances to your organization.

Future Board Members and Employees

This will seem obvious, but an advisory council is an ideal way to vet future members of the board of directors. Many a nonprofit executive has stories about board members who did not follow through with their promises to support the organization. These stories feature board members who promised to make substantial donations, help bring in more high-level donors, or personally take on time-consuming tasks that they have the right experience and credentials to complete. Fast forward a couple of years, and sometimes promises made are promises broken. An advisory council can help a nonprofit gauge the true affinity of its supporters without putting a relatively unknown person in legal control on the board of directors. The advisory council member who increases her donations over a few years, volunteers her time, and becomes a vocal advocate for the nonprofit is likely a great candidate for a future seat on the board. Likewise, an advisory council can serve as a tool to identify future employees. In 2021, 53% of employed U.S. adults who quit their job changed their occupation. People increasingly seek a sense of belonging, identity, and purpose in their careers, but only about half of Americans claim to find true meaning in their work.

An Opportunity for Someone on Your Staff

One of the most common reasons nonprofit professionals give for not starting an advisory council is the time and resources required to maintain one. An advisory council requires communication with the council members, meetings, and another set of relationships to steward. While these are valid concerns, the investment of time and resources necessary to create and maintain an advisory council is worth it for many organizations. While the board of directors requires the attention of the highest-ranking individual at a nonprofit, an advisory council can often be managed by someone less advanced in their career. This is a great way to reward a dedicated employee and give them a true leadership role. Even if a staff member spends only a few hours per month communicating with and managing an advisory council, it can be an experience that advances their own career aspirations.

Consider what an advisory council could do for your organization. Think about the champions of your nonprofit that generously give money or volunteer their time, but aren’t good candidates to join your board of directors. Think about how an advisory council could help you make informed decisions when it comes to future board members, and how someone on your staff is looking for a chance to have more responsibility at work. Nonprofits have the ability to greatly expand their affinity groups, and Americans are eager to be involved.

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