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Fundraising Fundamentals, Section 9.6


Volunteer Advisory Boards

Separate from your institution’s governing board (i.e., board of trustees or directors), which is responsible for the overall guardianship of the institution's assets and management, the development office may elect to create a volunteer advisory board that focuses solely on helping improve the performance of fundraising.

Before establishing an advisory board, carefully weigh its role, the benefits of having such a board and the demands that will go with it.

Role and Benefits of an Advisory Board

Advisory board members should be your leading ambassadors, most loyal supporters, most trusted advisers and sternest critics. They can:

  • Provide objective guidance and feedback on the development strategy,
  • Identify donor prospects and introduce them to the institution,
  • Cultivate prospects through events, campus visits, communications, etc.,
  • Solicit prospects by helping the development director make the ask,
  • Inspire prospects by becoming donors themselves and encouraging others to follow their example,
  • Support stewardship activities,
  • Assess the progress of development activities against the agreed milestones and help identify appropriate future action,
  • Bring expertise and networks to supplement your in-house resources,
  • Be your champion and help you develop your case for support and
  • Bring prestige and credibility if well-known and respected.
Demands of an Advisory Board

Although there are many benefits to having a volunteer advisory board, be aware that this body can be extremely time-consuming from a management and administrative perspective, as you must produce appropriate paperwork, recruit members, provide training and organize service meetings. You must also offer your volunteers the highest level of stewardship.

Cautiously determine the best time, structure, size and responsibilities of the advisory board before creating one. Here are some questions you might ask yourself:

  • Should you wait until after the start-up phase or do you need the support early on?
  • Do you have a current donor who could help lead or chair the board (possibly one involved in the feasibility study)?
  • Should you start with four or five members and then expand as you have the capacity to manage more people?
  • Do you have a clearly defined role with a few key activities for a board to initially focus on?
Who Should Be on the Board?

Board members can be recruited from all occupations and backgrounds but should be representative of the institution’s stakeholders. They should be willing to assist with the development plan (primarily the identification and cultivation of donors outside of formal board meetings) and to offer relevant expertise or experience in fundraising.

You will need to decide whether every member of the board is expected to donate. If they do not give, there is a danger that the board will become a talking shop without any real sense of drive and purpose. (See below, "When Board Members Give.")

Typically, board members might be recruited from among the alumni, the local business community, long-standing donors or partners and other positions of influence, such as government. One to two members could also be drawn from senior staff within the institution, such as the vice-chancellor, chief operating officer or finance director, or from among senior academic staff. Most boards have between six and 15 members.

You can also set up subcommittees for individual large-scale projects, events or specific campaigns. By doing this you increase the number of opportunities for people to get involved and support your activities.

Creating an Advisory Board

If (and when) you decide to create an advisory board, the development director and institution’s leader should work together to:

  • Clearly define and document the role, responsibilities and commitments of the board,
  • Ensure there is a plan for creating and supporting the board, including the timeframe, prospects, communication strategy, objectives and benchmarks and staff responsibility,
  • Determine the top candidate to lead or chair the board (and approach first) and
  • Draft your ideal advisory board structure (to revise with the chair).

A well-run board should:

  • Have a constitution,
  • Meet regularly,
  • Ensure that its members have ‘job descriptions’ and a thorough understanding of their role and responsibilities (particularly between meetings), as well as if there is a fundraising commitment,
  • Provide adequate training and information to its members,
  • Keep accurate records,
  • Comprise a good mix of qualified people,
  • Have limited terms of office of its members and
  • Engage members in the work of the institution outside of meetings.

Action Item
  • Together, the development director and institution’s leader should carefully determine the role and ROI (i.e., the benefits, risks, timing, support structures, commitment, etc.) before creating an advisory board. A board is a powerful resource, but only when managed and used well.

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When Board Members Give

A common feature of boards in the United States is to have an agreed-upon minimum financial contribution for each member to either ‘give’ or ‘get’ through other sources. Although a give/get commitment may not be the norm in your country, you may want to discuss this strategy when creating an advisory board.

One benefit: With even a very modest financial contribution from every member, your institution can relay to prospects that you have 100 percent giving from your board – providing credibility and inspiring confidence.


CASE provides many resources about volunteer/board involvement.

Peters discusses how to use volunteers, including board members, and the best way to manage them.
McWilliams talks about staffing and organizational structure.