Young Voices in the Boardroom
By Betsy Rosenblatt
One in every four US residents is under 18. Young people are members of our communities, clients of our organizations, as well as its future leadership. That's why more organizations are involving young people in new ways, including as board members. Young people are willing to work and eager to learn, so why not take them up on it?
Why bring a young person onto your board? There are many reasons, but here is a sampling.
Diversity of viewpoint: Young people may offer creative thinking and fresh perspectives that may not be present on your board.
Long-term growth: How better for young people to learn about nonprofits, leadership, and contributing to their community than through board service? How better for your board to ensure it won't wither and die when current members retire from service?
Community outreach: Youth have powerful and effective informal networks. If you want to reach young people in your community, recruiting two to serve on your board may be a great way to do so.
When you bring up this idea with others on your board, some people may object. They might say that teenagers don't know how to be board members, or that high school students will leave the area after graduation. It WILL take commitment from the adults on the board to make it work. You may need to adjust meeting times, bylaws, or board member requirements. But some of the changes you might enact - such as reducing the use of jargon and acronyms, making financial reports easier to understand, or creating a board member mentor mechanism - are changes that can be good for everyone on the board.
Following are potential obstacles to young people serving on boards and how to overcome them.
Legality and bylaws. Most state laws are silent on the issue of minors serving on boards, but you might want to check with an attorney or local resource center who can outline your state's laws. Many organizations specify age limits for board members, on both ends. It is easy to change bylaws to make your board more inclusive.
Budget. You may need to include money in your budget to make board meetings more accessible to young people. This might include serving food at meetings if they're right after school or providing transportation.
Board member requirements: If your board requires, for example, personal financial contributions of a fixed amount or higher, it may be preferable to change the requirement to "a level that is personally meaningful." In another example, you may need to be willing to accept high school seniors for one-year terms instead of the usual two-year terms.
Want to start now? Here are some steps to get you started.
Assess your willingness and readiness: Are your board and staff willing and able to make changes?
Look to your constituents. Who are you serving? Find two or three young people who are in your pool of clients, students at local schools, or involved in related activities to your mission.
Call your local Volunteer Center to see if they can help find potential young board members. Many of them have or know of special programs to train and place young people on boards.
Plan a strong orientation. Young people need the same equipment and background as adults on your organization, as well as some basics on the nonprofit sector and how meetings are conducted.
Conduct training. Both young people and adults benefit from ongoing board development programs.
There was a time when all board members were new to nonprofits and philanthropy and had to find their way around. What better time to make that happen than when people are young and open to new ideas, and full of creativity and energy?
An organization called Youth On Board has done a great deal of thinking about how and why to bring young people onto the board. They publish "Fourteen Points for Successfully Involving Youth in Decision-Making" ($25 per copy plus $4.50 s&h) or call them in Massachusetts at 617-623-9900, or visit their website at http://www.youthonboard.org. NCNB co-published with this organization, "Youth on Board: Why and How to Involve Young People in Organizational Decision-Making" (28 pages, $12 members; $16 non-members). Call 800-883-6262 or visit www.ncnb.org.
Original publication date: 10/19/2000
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