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Catapult Your Development Efforts With An Advisory Council

By Michael Maude with Richard Heap

Situation: you want to secure funding to create a new program, expand one or establish an endowment. You would like to utilize the expertise of high-caliber individuals from various disciplines. You also want to involve more and new people in your organization. Solution: consider forming an advisory council. It is an effective means of initiating or focusing your major gift program.

The decision to form an advisory council begins with an organizational commitment to a strategic, thoughtful and cumulative process that will extend over a long period of time. This is not a quick solution to solve an immediate or impending crisis.

The process begins with a written description of the program you want to address, the parameters within which the council will be focused, the results you are seeking and a plan to guide the development. This clearly defines the strategies, people and resources which will assure success of the effort.

The Big Picture: Your Overall Organization and the Advisory Council

Incorporating the Council Into the Overall Organization

Incorporating an advisory council into the organizational structure depends upon whether the organization has a governing board of directors. An advisory council can be especially effective for organizations that do not have a local governing board.

Most non-profit organizations, however, typically do have a board of directors. From the onset, seek the board's involvement and formal approval. While the board focuses on the mission as a whole; the advisory council focuses on one, single aspect of the mission. To achieve optimal results from the council, the board of directors clearly defines the advisory council's role and then empowers the council to move forward according to an established time line. The board needs to be committed to accepting and implementing well-considered recommendations of the advisory council. A board member should be appointed to chair the council and serve as the communication link between the two.

Staff or management support is critical. Council members should not be burdened with details, such as creating agendas or taking minutes. You want them to generate ideas and give advice. This is an application of the adage: ask people for money, they will give you advice; ask people for their advice, they will give you money.

Positioning the Advisory Council. Advice vs. Advisory

Clearly, the advisory council is not a committee of the board; council members are not involved in management, finances or supervisory activities. Usually, council members do not want to be involved directly in these activities. Members of the advisory council are sought to offer their opinions, their experience, and their counsel. This group is not a task force. They are not charged with responsibilities requiring significant portions of their time. Implementing recommendations is obviously important, but council members will not be involved extensively in that process.

Their role is to outline the "what and how." Tasks that are assigned to council members must be simple and easily executed. For a small time commitment from each member, a council produces immense brainstorming and idea-generating power. Members should be able to easily gather information and research that may be needed or direct staff to sources.

Identifying Candidates for the Council. Where do you start?

- Forming a dynamic team

As you assemble a list of the individuals you want to involve, begin to develop a written profile of each one. Questions to ask: With what other organizations is this candidate currently involved? Is the focus of this advisory council an opportunity to advance his/her interests? Why would this candidate be willing to serve? What financial resources could he/she bring to the project? What is the best approach to recruit this individual? Who should be involved? Use the members of your board and other donors to help you find the answers.

In recruiting a dynamic advisory council, certain elements need to be considered: a link to the board, a champion to provide vision and one or more primary gift prospects. A member from the board of directors should chair the council and help recruit others. The first member to recruit is the champion, followed by the primary gift prospects. Commitments from these individuals will be powerful factors in recruiting other individuals.

Think of the recruitment process as the initial steps in your major gift program:

1. Identify candidates and complete individualized profiles.

2. Inform each candidate about the focus area for the advisory council.

3. Think about what will appeal to each individual's Interest.

4. Present the opportunity to Involve them with your organization.

5. Then, through their participation, they will begin to Internalize your mission and develop ownership of your common goals.

6. As the relationship develops, you will be able to plan the cultivation process that will lead them to Invest in your program.

7. Seeing the results produced by the advisory council will motivate them to Immortalize themselves and perpetuate their values through endowment gifts that will impact the lives of generations to come.

This process serves as a blueprint for the cultivation of each candidate. Determine at what stage they may be currently involved with your organization, establish your preliminary objective for each one and begin to develop a plan to move them toward realizing it.

- The Champion

The champion can be the most important element of a successful advisory council. This person provides vision for other council members by helping them peer into unchartered territory. The champion is the idea person; the one with a dream. The champion leads the council by stimulating but not dominating discussion. The champion sparks the fire which the council then fuels by expounding on the ideas. Artfully, the champion leads the council through this brainstorming process and allows council members to adopt these ideas as their own.

- The Primary Gift Prospects

Acquiring the resources necessary to make an idea a reality requires more than well-intentioned people. Significant programs require significant financial resources. The primary gift prospects ideally should be already interested in the focus area. Identifying these individuals requires extensive research utilizing the knowledge of your board members, past experience with your organization, and your personal contact with them. These individuals should have the ability to work well with others and have positive, can-do attitudes. The primary gift prospect profiles should be updated frequently, as the information in their profiles will prove invaluable when drafting a persuasive gift proposal for their investment when the program is ready for implementation.

- Other Council Members

When commitments from these first individuals are secured, you can begin to recruit other members. With these first members on board, your cause will be powerfully reinforced and highly appealing to other candidates. Additional members should also have financial means which they will be likely to invest after they have contributed significant time and created a new vision for the organization. You will want to recruit a total of eight to twelve members which is optimal for group dynamics.

Individuals with education and experience or significant interest in the program area are best qualified. It is an appropriate vehicle for involving candidates who may not wish to serve on the board or desire a limited time commitment. This is also a meaningful way to involve individuals who cannot serve on the board because they have fulfilled their term or the board does not have any positions open. Too, it is a sensitive means to keep others involved who may have a long-standing relationship with your organization, but now are not physically able to continue active participation.

Getting the Advisory Council Started

Define the council's focus

Identifying, thoroughly defining and articulating the council's focus area are the initial steps. The advisory council needs to work within a well-focused area as defined by the board. The focus area should be non-controversial, relate directly to the mission and capture the council's curiosity and sustain its interest. The focus area should be open to a range of solutions and opportunities as exploring those options will yield ownership among council members. Defining the program area, the work process, and potential benefits are necessary in preparing for the first meeting.

The focus area may be the development of a new program, expansion or evaluation of a current program, funding of a program that is not self-supporting or establishment of an endowment. The focus area may overlap several of the possibilities mentioned:

Development of a new program

Example: a new liturgical studies program for a religious organization

Focus on defining the objectives and elements of the program and the strategies to develop the program.

Expansion of a current program

Example: expanding services of an eye institute for a health care institution

Focus on defining the services to be expanded, how those components will complement the current program, and how the expansion will better serve targeted patients.

Evaluation of a current program

Example: evaluating a children's community theater program

Focus on how to make the program more efficient, how to maximize marketing efforts and enhance fund raising efforts.

Support of a program that is not self-supporting

Example: supporting a food kitchen or an unwed mothers' program

Focus on the relevance and importance of the program to the community, how the program can operate with optimal efficiency, and how to attract additional funding.

Establishment of an endowment

Example: any organization or program financially in flux or dependent upon gifts or grants

Focus on the long term goals of the organization and how to provide financial stability.

Note: As defined in this context, advisory councils do not lend themselves to a building project or as a task force as those tend to be short-term, intensive efforts.

After the focus area is defined, specify the advisory council's role. Establish the council's mission, but do not constrain it with a pre-determined step-by-step process. Allow the council to determine the process.

As the advisory council evolves, other people in the community may be recommended for membership. Involving people with specific, but limited financial capability may benefit the council on an ad hoc basis.

The selection grid facilitates the process of setting priorities once opportunities have been researched. At the St. Lawrence Center, it was used to establish priorities for implementation among competing programs.


Recruiting Process

The process of recruiting members is conducted similar to gift solicitation. Meetings with candidates begin with background information on the organization's mission and programs.

This information should be linked persuasively to the focus area. Plan questions that will engage the person in conversation. Discuss the candidate's interests, how those can be applied to your project and why his/her involvement is particularly important. Written materials will help guide you and the candidate through the presentation. Written materials should include: organization's mission, the council's purpose, advisory council member qualifications and program information.

The First Council Meeting

The meeting begins with an expression of gratitude from the board chair or CEO for the council's commitment of time and expertise and a review of their purpose. Use visual aids and stories to create a strong impression and to underscore the need for the advisory council.

Each member should receive a three-ring notebook containing the mission statement of the organization, a roster of advisory council members, members' job description, specific program information, pertinent policies, tentative future meeting schedules, etc.

The point of this meeting is to provide an excellent grounding in the program area. The staff person responsible for the program needs to attend this meeting to provide an overview and field program-specific questions. The program director (and the champion) will provide the raw material for the council to begin working. The competence of the program director will give the council members confidence in the program and its potential.

The first meeting will set the stage. The meeting should be followed up with minutes. They will serve as a springboard for the following meeting's discussion. Draft them strategically! Remember that minutes are a staff function, not a council member function.

Orchestrating the Council: A Thoughtful, Authentic Process

Planning meetings with the chair and champion, strategically drafting minutes, thoughtfully planning tasks for council members to execute: this entire process must be conducted in a professional, inclusive, sincere manner. Council members expect and will respect the effort if this process is authentic. They may be leaders within their individual spheres of expertise and experience, but they will appreciate leadership in this effort. The council members will want to become engaged in the process and fulfill their commitment.

Building the Council's Momentum

Guiding From This Point Forward

Thus far, we have discussed the use of an advisory council, clarified its role, discussed the recruitment of council members and getting it started. This process began by looking at the needs of the organization, then identifying opportunities to involve people in a way that is meaningful and possible for them.

Guiding the council is a cyclical process: observing people and their discussion, formulating the next steps, etc. This cycle will continue through the life of the council and the process will become more complex as the council moves forward.

Diligent documentation, which began at the genesis of the council, should continue. The plan (the strategies and the desired results) requires regular updating. Discussion, observations, new knowledge, comments: each offers valuable pieces of information that guide decision making in this strategic, thoughtful, cumulative effort. Careful analysis of this information after each meeting will shape the next steps of your plan. Documentation, from beginning to end, yields strategic management and control. It's useful for defining direction, critical to maintaining momentum, essential to achieving success, and vital to building trust.

Next Steps: Envisioning the Future through Brainstorming

The champion is most valuable in this process. He/she provides understanding, poses questions to be answered and opens the universe of possibilities. The champion stimulates discussion, but does not dominate it.

Time spent in advance of the council meeting for planning by the chair, development director and the champion is critical to planning this stimulation. The purpose is to frame the focus of the champion's vision. Planning predetermines closure by the champion in order to allow council members to begin discussion. The chair also asks questions to spark the discussion, particularly to draw ideas from primary gift prospects.

Together, the chair, champion and development director guide the focus of the conversation once the meeting is convened. Collectively, they are the catalyst. The champion's knowledge and ideas ignite the council; the fuel comes from the council. This marks the council's point of departure to begin exploring the possibilities.

Exploring the Possibilities

Exploration of solutions or opportunities may begin with research on the part of advisory council members. Responsibilities need to be specific to individual members. Each member should leave the initial brainstorming session with an assignment to consider, research and develop one element. Without a great deal of effort, members can access their contacts in the field and utilize their individual expertise. Begin this process by asking them to take small responsibilities. As this process evolves, be especially sensitive to primary gift prospects.

Documentation of this exploration process remains critical. Next steps are continually formulated. Planning at least one step ahead while keeping the ultimate goal in mind will facilitate this process.

Testing the Opportunities

After brainstorming and researching potential solutions and opportunities, the advisory council must test those that appear to be feasible. As an example, the council may design a survey to seek input from the organization's targeted constituency. Qualitative information may be gathered through surveys, focus groups, interviews, etc. Factual information and hard data gleaned from literature searches supplement constituency opinions. Quantitative information comparing and contrasting other programs is also valuable. The advisory council outlines the needs assessment process; staff handles the administrative responsibilities.

Solidifying the Council's Ideas into Planning

The Results

Having been substantially involved in the assessment, advisory council members will be curious about the results. The staff handles the mechanics; the advisory council interprets the data. Be sure to deliver the results at a meeting of the council after reviewing the findings with the chairperson first. The presentation and report will be used as a springboard for analysis and priority setting.

Setting Priorities

A selection grid can help facilitate the process of establishing priorities. Sometimes members are reluctant to voice personal opinions, especially if the subject is beyond their professional expertise. Even with the opportunities tested, council members may hesitate to voice their personal opinions. The selection grid makes it easier for them to evaluate solutions and opportunities to arrive at a consensus on priorities for action. The sample selection grid lists five priorities (the number of priorities may vary). Each member numerically rates each of the solutions according to impact on the organization's mission, implementation costs, time required for implementation, or other criteria specific to your program. Then, it is a simple matter of totaling points which reveal the order of priorities. Priorities are finalized by discussing them in context with the desired results established at the beginning of the process and with the mission. The advisory council is now ready to submit a formal recommendation to the board for approval and action.

Setting the Stage For the Ask

The primary gift prospects are now prepared to support the program. These individuals have been involved fully in the process. They know the program director and have had the opportunity to see their own ideas discussed and evaluated. They have developed confidence in the overall operation of the organization and in the CEO and board. The process has built trust and you have formed a personal relationship with them. The solicitation of their investment to make possible the implementation of these solutions and opportunities becomes a natural conversation among partners. You have created desire from which the gift will be a logical outcome.

What Can Be Expected?

At St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Topeka, KS, an advisory council was established for the purpose of expanding the eye institute. The advisory council was a strategy devised to cultivate the interest of a major gift prospect identified by the board's major gifts committee.

The effort began by appointing a chair from the board, a local businessman who was a patient of the targeted champion. The champion was an ophthalmic specialist with a national reputation. The primary gift prospect was a retired ophthalmologist whose wife had died and who had no children. Other council members included businessmen who owned optical and medical equipment companies, a Lions Club representative, wealthy businessmen who were visually impaired, a representative of a community trust established to provide services for the visually impaired, and eye care professionals.

As the advisory council progressed through the process described in this article, it developed a vision of what the eye institute could be and how it could better meet the needs of patients and professionals in the region. Priorities included a low vision clinic which local eye care professionals supported because these patients take a great deal of clinical time. Although they are covered by Medicare and Medicaid, fee payments do not cover the costs.

A charity fund was needed to assist patients in securing low vision aides and other devices to enhance the quality of their lives since the visually impaired are generally unemployed or underemployed. The advisory council discovered (via patient survey) the need for transportation services for the visually impaired who cannot drive themselves and often do not have public transportation available. Patient education could be expanded through the purchase of educational video and audio tapes, printed materials and newsletters (in large type).

A research project was proposed to test a new treatment technique to prevent blindness due to a particular dysfunction. (The technique proved to be successful and will be published in a professional journal). Funding would also allow the eye institute to become a licensed site for the testing and demonstration of low vision enhancement systems for patients with severely limited vision. Professional education for primary physicians could be offered to help them identify early vision problems before major problems develop.

Funds were never sufficient to upgrade and add equipment since it could not be economically justified by patient/insurance fees.

The advisory council took a little over a year to develop its recommendations to the board. The board, of course, had been kept up to date with regular reports by the council chair.

After the recommendations were approved, it was proposed to the primary gift prospect that the eye institute be named for him and his late wife with a gift of $1 million. He immediately agreed and made a commitment of $1.3 million to endow the Karl and Gladys Stock Eye Institute, a lasting legacy to the community which had supported him for 50 years. Smaller, yet significant gifts from other members followed.

You can plan for and achieve the same results!

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