4 Situations Best Served by a Leadership Council


by Laurence Pagnoni

Just as there are different types of leadership councils, there are key moments in your growth when a leadership council can help your nonprofit. Consider these four big moments.

  1. When an Acquisition, Merger or Strategic Alliance Is Underway

When two organizations join, either through acquisition, merger or strategic alliance, the new board of directors doesn’t necessarily have to just double in size. Everyone may not be a perfect fit for the new board, though you don’t want the board members from the smaller or less powerful of the two original organizations to just drift off into the sunset or feel as if their usefulness has expired. On the contrary, you’ll want to keep them engaged, even if they are no longer carrying out board governance work.

This situation arose when two environmental organizations merged. One was especially strong in knowing which on-the-ground programs worked well to mobilize people in support of the environment, while the other nonprofit’s strengths lay in its leadership power and access to resources.

The new CEO, having determined that her new board was sufficiently larger, had to decide what to do with a whole group of board members who had been enormously helpful to both organizations in the past and whom she wanted to keep involved in a meaningful way. She also had to, ahem, move some people around who weren’t quite right for the new board.

Her solution was to create a presidents council for them to serve on. Among other things, the council members would be responsible for maintaining the “institutional memory” of the previous organizations: how they did things in the past, how various capital campaigns worked out, etc. The members of the presidents council continued to enjoy the esteem of appearing on the group’s letterhead and, at the time, felt their contributions were still most welcome.

  1. When You Need to Fly Under the Radar

Very often, situations arise that require an especially delicate touch. Say you run a Planned Parenthood clinic in an area that is hostile to your presence for political or religious reasons. You may want to weigh in on funding hearings to prevent STDs without necessarily drawing attention to your organization and every service it provides. This could be the ideal situation for you to create a council of experts, a doctors (or nurses) council, whose purpose is to not only deflect negative attention from your nonprofit but highlight other lesser known preventive services you provide to the community at large.

Likewise, if you were a faith-based nonprofit looking to take part in a community dialogue about the Middle East, a rabbis and imams council might better focus attention on your organization’s religious views instead of your perceived political affiliations.

At times, you may even have a reason to fly under your own radar. For example, if you are in a board crisis, members of a leadership council can reassure others (e.g. funders, politicians) that it’s just a bump in the road and all will be well. A “friends of” council can be up and running in as little as a few months.

  1. When Garnering Greater Representation in Your Community Is Needed

Most of the councils I have been associated with ranged in size from a dozen to forty people, but the size of the council will always depend on the agency’s needs. For instance, I once visited a nonprofit that I’ll call the Upper Coast County Association. It represented a population of several million, had 55 people on its board of directors and 200 people on its Community Council. When I asked the CEO why his board and council were so large, he replied, “Look at my name! I’m the Upper Coast County Association. If I don’t have all the main players from business, government and nonprofit on my board or council, I’ll never get anything done because when I have an initiative, I need everybody behind me.”

In a similar vein, you might be a medium or small nonprofit but relatively new in your sector or geographical area. If your letters of introduction go out with several prominent community leaders or celebrity names listed on your letterhead under LEADERSHIP COUNCIL, you will draw infinitely more attention to your organization and your cause.

  1. When A Major Campaign Is Underway

One of the best ways to supplement a major fundraising campaign is to establish something like a citizens council or a community council. The more people perceive the reach of your initiative to be, the more likely they will want to take part in it, because the prestige they will receive in exchange for their participation will be showcased to a wider audience. Major donors are more likely to want to participate in something that seeks out and validates their wisdom and stature, not just solicits their money. A council does just that.

Overall

Unlike when you create your board of directors, you are free from legal and procedural strictures in creating leadership councils. All leadership councils are different, with varying rules, obligations, and life-spans. You can custom-fit yours to your agency, though to do so successfully, keep it simple and focused on one central goal, and you need to put energy into maintaining and growing it. Many councils die prematurely of neglect.