Bench Warmers or Change Makers?

Posted by BoardSource on Oct 27, 2014 2:05:32 PM


by Robert B. Acton, executive director NYC, Taproot Foundation

Earlier-career professionals are a valuable — and largely untapped — talent pool for the boards of directors of nonprofit organizations in our country. As a sector, nonprofits are leaving a powerful resource — energized and ready-to-serve business professionals — sitting on the sidelines.

The push to create diverse nonprofit boardrooms is well-known, but diversity related to age often seems to be left out of the equation. According to BoardSource’s Leading with Intent 2014: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, just 17 percent of nonprofit board members are under the age of 40. Moreover, with only six percent of nonprofit chief executives under the age of 40, the truth is that most nonprofit leadership happens in a generational vacuum. The hard truth is that nonprofit boards do not reflect the full spectrum of America’s professional workforce. While the business world is obsessed with understanding and responding to Millennials, our sector is doing little to engage this impressive generation in leadership.

The primary reason for this neglect, as I see it, is clear.

As a group, earlier-career professionals don’t have deep pockets to make as sizable an annual contribution as their more mature counterparts. As a result, they rarely make board prospect lists. That’s a big mistake. The annual financial gift a board member donates can be just a fraction of his or her overall contribution. The strongest nonprofit organizations in our country enjoy board members who leverage their professional knowledge, skills, and network to support their nonprofit organization’s business infrastructure. My organization — Taproot Foundation — strongly believes that every nonprofit needs professionals with a range of functional skills serving on its board to provide oversight, strategic guidance, and pro bono resource-raising in at least six key areas of expertise: legal, finance, technology, marketing, human resources, and strategy management.

Beyond their business skills, Next Gen board members can bring new perspectives to governance: the importance of connectedness, purpose, and recognition; shifting attitudes on workplace flexibility; and use of new technologies and social media, to name a few. Earlier-career professionals also tend to enjoy large networks of colleagues and friends eager to make a difference and engage in their community. At the end of a long workday, young professionals often head to networking events, professional affinity group meetings, or the local pub: rooms full of likeminded individuals, all of whom have the ability to infuse energy and enthusiasm into the governing work of a nonprofit.

In 2014, I led the design, build, and pilot of a board placement program at Taproot to place Next Gen leaders on boards and, in turn, train them to drive pro bono resources into their nonprofit. Generously funded by the Heckscher Foundation for Children, the program recruits, matches, and trains earlier-career professionals from PwC, Google, and Alcoa with youth-serving nonprofit organizations in New York City. We are now working with PwC to expand the pilot to five new regions: Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Atlanta.

In building any new program, one always wonders, “Will anyone come to our party?” My first worry was this: “Will nonprofits want early-career professionals on their boards?” It turns out the answer to that is a resounding “yes.” We reached out to 90 youth nonprofits inviting them to learn more. Fully one-third of those organizations applied for participation in the program. My second worry: “Will earlier-career professionals want to serve on nonprofit boards and will they commit to hours of pro bono training?” Once again, they far surpassed our expectations. We presented the opportunity to 110 professionals from these three companies and nearly half submitted an application for board placement. The bottom line: Earlier-career professionals and nonprofit organizations are eager to connect, provided the value proposition is clear.

To accomplish the transformative change of infusing Next Gen board members into nonprofit organizations, three key things must happen:

  • Nonprofits must be convinced. Nonprofit leaders must understand that earlier-career professionals can do much more than make an annual contribution; they can drive tens-of-thousands of dollars in pro bono value into the organization each year.
  • Nonprofits must be ready. For board members to effectively leverage their talents and network, nonprofit leadership and staff must understand basic principles of how to effectively scope, secure, manage, and scale pro bono for maximum impact. Taproot Foundation offers tools and training to help nonprofits become powered by pro bono so they can effectively leverage these resources, independently and sustainably, in highly impactful ways.
  • Next Gen board members must be trained and supported. These new board members need training to ensure that they will succeed both as stewards of the organization and drivers of resources. Moreover, because they may be “the odd men out” as the youngest members of the board, I believe they will benefit from a cohort of similarly situated professionals going through the same experience at the same time.

Over the past 11 years, I have served on a number of nonprofit boards — my first at the age of 34. While I enjoy participating in quarterly meetings, serving on committees, attending the annual gala, and the like, the truth is that I have been most useful to my organizations when tapping into my professional skills or network to drive in much-needed capacity building. I’m most fulfilled when I know I have truly added value in meaningful ways. I’m most appreciated when I’ve helped the executive director overcome a challenge the organization was facing.

Let’s get 20- and 30-somethings off the bench and onto the field. The nonprofit sector needs their leadership.



Topics: Board Diversity & Inclusivity