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Well-schooled: the care and feeding of advisory boards.

Perhaps because I've reached a certain age, I find myself from time to time asked to provide counsel or advice to university-based and nonprofits-related programs. Sometimes this request takes the form of an invitation to serve on an advisory committee to a particular "center."

The experience typically is a pleasant one, and usually seems productive. Over time, a familiar pattern unfolds: One flies to the location; checks in to a comfortable (though rarely elegant) hotel; meets interesting people at an opening event; visits the center (which has often migrated to new quarters since the last visit); participates as diligently as can be expected in a day or so of meetings; and then rushes to the airport for the flight back home. It's a two- or three-day process, and only occasionally is it followed by any follow-up duties. A year later, the routine repeats itself.

Each experience is different, of course, because the nonprofit river never follows precisely the same course twice. Consider three recent cases, each involving a center established at what I will call, respectively, "Northern University," "Mountain University," and "Tropical Storms University" (or "TSU", as it is fondly known to its loyal alums).

At Mountain University the group is small in size, between five and seven, and predominantly local in its membership (two from out-of-university). The meeting is informal in process (no name tags provided or needed), short in duration (two hours and a lunch), and is chaired by the program's director, a prominent faculty member at the university. The agenda is unstated but the discussion covers the range of the center's activities, its format welcoming participants to address ways the center might make its most effective contribution.

The advisory board at TSU is larger in size (15 to 20) and predominantly external in its membership (one-third requiring hotels, one-third from the local community, one-third directly affiliated with the center by dint of staff position, university leadership, or funding auspice). The meeting is formal in process (name "tents" at each place, pre-arranged presentations by staff and associated faculty, formal exercises to explore "vision" and "mission"), middling in length (from breakfast through early afternoon, with a dinner meeting the night before), and is chaired by the program's director, with a considerable presence on the part of the center's principal funding agency. The agenda is formally stated and pursued, its format giving members the sense that the conversation should also be formal in its structure. There seems less space than at Mountain U. for raising fundamental questions of the center's direction; rather, this meeting seems designed primarily for purposes of "show and tell."

At the third location considered here, Northern University, the advisory board is again small in size (seven persons). Its membership is drawn from five continents, as befits the international focus and stature of the center's work. The meeting is semiformal in process (name tags but no name tents), long in duration (one and one-half days), and is chaired by a member of the advisory board. The agenda is semi-structured, with scheduled presentations by associated faculty and staff interspersed with private meeting time for the external committee itself.

Fundamental questions of the center's mission and advance are directly addressed, and members of the advisory committee frequently intersperse the presentations of center staff and faculty with searching questions and observations, which themselves are dealt with forthrightly among the members themselves. At the conclusion of the meeting, a formal report is verbally presented to the university's top administrators, and this report is placed into written form by means of follow-up communications among advisory board members.

What can we conclude from this brief review of three advisory committees? There are several lessons. First, it is clear that while advisory committee members are often chosen as names to lend prestige to a center, they may also be called upon actively to assist in the advance of the center's mission and program. In the Northern University case, for example, the recommendations of the advisory committee, presented both personally and in writing to the university's president, recently led to the authorization of five and one-half new "hard money" lines to the center. And at Mountain University, several members of the advisory committee have joined in the creation of a book and other programs of the center.

A second lesson is that tension within programs is hard to disguise or ignore. In the TSU case, for instance, the founding figure remains on campus in active retirement, highly respected and with strong ties to members of the advisory committee.

As Herbert Caplow noted in his useful observations on How To Run An Organization, the task of succeeding a vigorous leader is not an easy one. The choice by the TSU center to relocate to its campus' business school and to distance itself from the liberal arts faculty would seem to reflect a condition set by foundation preference, but it introduces dissonance that neither the center nor the advisory committee has yet been able to address. The resulting disarray has taken as basic a form as the inability to schedule the next meeting of the board, and a sense among board members that they are one by one being consigned to the category of the "outs."

Finally, it is important to recognize, as Michael Gecan observed in Going Public: An Organizer's Guide To Citizen Action, that it is important to think of the third sector as the social space within which relations between people are primary. Advisory committees may be useful as names on a letterhead, but if a productive role is not created for and with them inside the organization, their critical observations will rebound to an organization's detriment if they only echo through external networks of potential support on the local level and beyond.

If a single advisor, several of them, or an entire advisory committee seems no longer suited to an organization's mission, it is probably better to relieve them of their unpaid status by means of a letter of thanks than to stumble on disdaining messages somehow found to lie beyond an appropriate hearing. If a nonprofit exec doesn't want advice, the best advice is: "Then don't ask for it."

Jon Van Til, professor of Urban Studies at Rutgers University and Fulbright Senior Specialist, will this spring bring his advice and counsel to the Budapest School of Entrepreneurship and the Toyo University of Japan.
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Title Annotation:On The Boundary
Author:Van Til, Jon
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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