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What is the Role of Advisory Committees?

Fiscally sponsored projects, like those in the Community Initiatives network, are different from nonprofits in a number of ways. A prominent example is that because the Community Initiatives board holds fiduciary responsibilities for all projects, the projects themselves don’t have formal boards, but every Community Initiatives project has an advisory committee. Committee members represent an abundant built-in resource; their role should be cultivated for the life of the project, not just in theory, but in practice.

Many nonprofits don’t fully optimize their boards and the same is true for projects that don’t tap into their advisory committees. The key is to implement the advisory committee’s role as outlined in the original fiscal sponsorship agreement.  We hope to help projects and advisory committees gain a deeper understanding of the potential for this role and exercise it to amplify the impact of their missions. A robust connection between projects and their advisory committees is critical to project success!

Every project advisory committee signed the Community Initiatives Sponsorship Agreement when first signing-up with us.  It spells out their role in broad terms:

As of the Effective Date, oversight (as defined in the Sponsorship Policies) of the program activities of the Project is delegated by the Community Initiatives Board of Directors to the individual members of the Committee, subject to the ultimate direction and fiduciary responsibility of the Community Initiatives Board.  Acting in their individual capacities, the members of the Committee serve as a subordinate body to the Community Initiatives Board to assist with the fulfillment of the purposes of the Project…(b) those participating on the Committee do not serve as representatives or agents of any funding source, employer, or any party other than Community Initiatives.

What does that mean in plain English?

Advisory committee members act as agents of the Community Initiatives board. They are responsible for oversight of project implementation and have the authority to hire and manage a project director, as well as to fire them. Advisory committee members may not manage daily activities, but their role is similar to a board in many respects and they are contractually obligated to fill this role. We hear over and over that projects struggle to manage their workloads. There is no need for project staff to feel isolated, when there is an extended team of advisors (extra brainpower!), which exists solely to support their projects.

What can you do to get more out of your advisory committee?

Educate. Send your advisory committee members a link to this blog! This information is meant to start a conversation and remind all parties of the great potential to optimize collaboration.

Meet regularly. We don’t require a set number of meetings for advisory committees because project needs are so varied. Some projects exist to host a single annual event, and others have a full time staff implementing their programs 365 days per year. Community Initiatives does recommend that project directors arrange advisory committee meetings with a regularity that is appropriate for a project’s needs. This could be annually, quarterly, or even monthly. Whatever the meetings look like, it is essential that committee members be actively engaged with the project director in problem solving. 

Have candid conversations about needs and goals. Though the Community Initiatives board holds the legal fiduciary responsibilities of oversight, we encourage project directors to talk to their advisory committee about their financials and program successes and challenges. Advisory committee members often have valuable resources and skills that can be leveraged in executing fundraising campaigns and solving problems. Remember, advisory committees have ultimate legal authority over program implementation but not day-to-day responsibility if the project has a project director.  Advisory Committees should follow the same best practices as Boards of Directors—partner with and support project staff, but don’t micro-manage.  Of course, if the project has no staff, then it is the Advisory Committee managing the project day-to-day.

Empower your advisory committee members to contact Community Initiatives staff. Despite signing the sponsorship agreement contract with Community Initiatives, we have found that many advisory committee members are unaware of the scope of services and support that Community Initiatives can contribute to the project. Advisory Committee members also have access to the Community Initiatives staff directly. For every strategic planning session we host with a project, we require that all advisory committee members attend. Time and time again, we see committee members walk away from those sessions reenergized to support their project.

How are other projects using their advisory committees?

Two projects that use their Advisory Committees well, Butler Koshland Fellowships and San Francisco Aid for Animals, shared these perspectives from committee members:

“Chairing the Butler Koshland Fellowships’ Advisory Committee has been an opportunity for me to serve alongside of an incredible group of people who are dedicated to our mission to identify and mentor the next generation of public service leaders. It’s been professionally and personally enriching to engage with our committee as we work towards a common vision and I always look forward to our meetings, which are intellectually stimulating, inspiring, and also a lot of fun. Though we cover a broad range of topics in our discussions, our most important work is to tend to the financial and programmatic health of the organization. To these ends, we are very active in our development and support of fundraising initiatives and equally engaged with maintaining the quality of our program by nominating and selecting mentor candidates who meet our standards of excellence.” – Serra Butler Simbeck, Advisory Committee Chair

“From its inception, the San Francisco Aid for Animals (SFAfA) advisory committee has been comprised of people with diverse backgrounds and skill sets which includes veterinarians, business leaders, lawyers, communication experts and development experts. This committee has been critical to the program’s success, as all work is accomplished by this volunteer committee and a few volunteers from the community. Given that the program’s success is contingent on the active engagement of veterinarians in San Francisco, the development and support of individual donors, and the effective communication of our mission and goals in order to raise funds for animals in need, the composition and work of the advisory committee has been the reason for our ongoing success. We have tried to maintain a balance of skill sets in the critical areas needed to accomplish our work, and this continues to be our goal as we recruit and bring on additional advisory committee members.  We try to assign work to each committee member based on their areas of interest and expertise, and I believe this has enabled us to succeed in getting our work accomplished.”  Kathy Hajopoulos, Advisory Committee Co-Chair

Are you having trouble gaining active participation from your advisory committee? Contact your program specialist and we can brainstorm with you on getting them more involved!