Nurturing an Industry Advisory Board

February 6, 2014

Let us assume it’s easier for a non-profit organization to maintain an advisory board than to build one. To do this, there is an important maxim to consider: The factors that motivate board members to join are different than the factors that motivate them to stay. And if you listen carefully to your board members, they will give you the keys to keeping them engaged and committed.   

I manage the Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies (CChIPS), a National Science Foundation Industry/University Collaborative Research Center (I/UCRC) that has an Industry Advisory Board (IAB) as an essential part of its structure and mission. While the ultimate goal of an I/UCRC is to foster high quality research that has practical use in industry, a center needs an engaged and dedicated board of industry members in order to get there. Along with the financial support, board members provide guidance and mentorship to investigators and lend their business acumen to an academic setting. While the I/UCRC boards are unique, they share qualities with many other kinds of boards, and the lessons learned from nurturing these relationships can be applied to whatever board you may be managing.

Our board is made up of unique individuals who are extraordinarily committed to our work, but even the most dedicated board needs effective leadership to function smoothly. Here are some keys to success:

  • Find out what your board members need to do their job more easily. (Remember, your board members already have a full-time job. Make participation as easy and rewarding as possible for them.)
  • Work with them collaboratively to develop and implement strategies that meet those needs.
  • Keep any strategy you develop strongly focused on your center’s mission, which will help you to remain on the path to which you are committed.

How do you find out what your board members need? Ask them -- through surveys, structured interviews and even coffee break conversations. When I talked to the CChIPS board members about what they value most, here’s what I learned:

The CChIPS mission, keeping children safe and sound, is one of the main reasons IAB members joined the Center, and it is the idea that keeps them involved. One member said, “I want people to be alive after a crash because of what I did.” The mission brings meaning to their work, helps to make the work they do in their everyday jobs tangible, and helps them to sell an investment in CChIPS to their company, year after year.

Leveraging research dollars is important to their organizations. The mission alone isn’t enough to make members join and stay. CChIPS brings them the ability to leverage their company’s investment. Each company contributes into a collective fund for research, say $50,000, and with that contribution they now have the ability to define, guide, and learn from over half a million dollars’ worth of pre-competitive research per year. Leveraging research dollars is a reason they join, but the quality and relevance of the research produced is a reason they stay.

The network of like-minded people within their profession is valuable. Create as much opportunity during meetings as possible for individual board members to get to know each other. Our board members consistently emphasize the importance of building relationships and networking at meetings. This isn’t a reason they joined CChIPS – they could not have understood its importance until they experienced it -- but it quickly becomes one of the most valuable elements of their board membership.

Socializing among peers in a non-competitive arena creates opportunities to build trust, which in turn allows for the sharing of data that can contribute to unique investigative efforts and the generation of new ideas. For example, under the auspices of CChIPS, car seat manufacturers shared proprietary measurement and dimensional data with automobile manufacturers, and vice versa with the academic center as the conduit, allowing investigators to determine how a car seat best fits into a rear seat. The environment at CChIPS allows for these two puzzle pieces to be shared and fit together – ultimately making traveling in a car a safer experience for children.

The atmosphere is conducive to problem solving and creating new product ideas. A long-time board member talked about “the fascinating minds that sit around the table creating policy” and how rare an opportunity it is to sit with business competitors and share openly. Another explained, “being involved in the IAB has helped us forge partnerships with automobile and child restraint manufacturers so that we can put together a better and safer product for kids.”

If you manage an advisory board, it is vital to recognize the importance of these relationships and to foster the communication between board members, researchers, and lead staff.

Once you know what your board members value, whether it’s precompetitive research, networking with peers, or an on-site presentation from your center director, your job is to create structured ways to meet those needs. These needs may change over time, so stay on top of it and remain flexible. But begin by asking the questions, and if you listen carefully, your board will give you the ingredients for a stable and highly effective board.