Board of Directors Vs. Advisory Board: What’s the Difference?

Imagine attending a fundraiser for a nonprofit that’s meaningful to you, perhaps an animal shelter or after-school program. Flipping through the program, you see everyone who made the event possible, including the sponsors, board of directors, and advisory board.

What’s the difference between the last two?

It’s a fair question. After all, nearly every nonprofit has (or is in the process of developing) a board of directors. But not every nonprofit has an advisory board.

To understand the differences between each board, let’s start with what they have in common.

What a board of directors and advisory board have in common

“Both exist for the same reason: helping the company or organization succeed,” says Andra Martinez, vice president of communications and development for Children’s Bureau, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to protecting children and preserving families throughout Indiana. “It’s the how that’s different.”

Board of directors: In a nutshell

A board of directors’ chief responsibility is governance, or as Martinez puts it, “Fiduciary responsibility. It’s charged with policy management versus procedural management.”

Another way to understand this: Focus on the word “directors.” Board members create directional guidance the help a nonprofit live up to its mission. They do this through:

Advisory board: In a nutshell

Whereas a board of directors focuses on governance, an advisory board contributes—you guessed it—advice and insight.

“An advisory board has no governing power. They simply offer opinions,” Martinez says. That thought leadership, however, can have a powerful impact on a nonprofit’s outreach. Advisory members shape that strategy by:

  • Representing an audience that the nonprofit seeks stronger connection to.

  • Making that connection happen through networking and planning events.

  • Reporting directly to leadership, not the board of directors.

  • Promoting their nonprofit in the community.

Understanding the grey areas between each board

At first glance, some responsibilities of a board of directors and an advisory board appear to overlap. For example, all board members serve as ambassadors for their nonprofit, and each board may be charged with organizing events and giving to the organization.

These responsibilities, however, can play out in vastly different ways for each board.

“You want a well-balanced representation of communities to help serve your clients,” Martinez says. Consider that if a board of directors is largely filled by baby boomers long established in their professions, then members will likely engage with the community in a formal way. Think attending galas, exploring partnerships, and facilitating donor relations.

An advisory board, on the other hand, would target a different audience, and likely in a more informal way. “It’s usually going to be a group of people whose opinions you’re seeking,” Martinez says.

For example, a symphony might create an advisory board to better connect with millennials (Children’s Bureau did something similar with its Young Professionals Advisory Board). That group might be more responsive to a shuffleboard tournament at a local brewery than, say, a $200-a-plate dinner.

When properly utilized, a board of directors and advisory board can significantly enhance a nonprofit’s visibility, even if the boards have little to no contact with one another.

“It encourages ownership of your organization’s mission from all of these audiences,” Martinez says. “It fosters a deeper understanding of your impact than if people just look at your website.”

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