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Welcoming the Next Generation of Board Leadership

Posted by Christina Carr on Mar 12, 2020 4:50:47 PM

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We are all concerned with improving our board diversity, but we don’t often think of age diversity as a problem. According to BoardSource, however, just 17 percent of nonprofit board members are under 40. Meanwhile, our colleagues in the corporate world are making it a priority to bring on younger board members. They see that growing future leaders is critical for good governance today and down the road. But just realizing the benefit of having younger voices at the table is not going to get us very far in terms of finding them.

When I joined a fundraising advisory board at the Smithsonian three years ago, I looked around and noticed I was two-to-three decades younger than everyone else. As a result, they all turned to me as the expert on how to find other young donors. But I realized that I could have an outsized impact on the nonprofit sector if I look beyond this one board and focus on helping all boards improve their board age diversity.

I started a blog on board diversity, wrote my master’s thesis on board age diversity, and have been speaking on the topic to try to get the word out about the benefits of age diversity in the boardroom. I have tried to get outside the nonprofit bubble to discover lessons learned from how the corporate sector is trying to improve board diversity. I’ve also been connecting with young trustees and social media influencers from the nonprofit world, both in the U.S. and the U.K., to learn from their insights.

My goal in all of this was to be able to distill my findings into actionable advice for all of you so that you can recruit, retain, and develop younger board leaders. I’ll be speaking on all of this in-depth at the BoardSource Leadership Forum in St. Louis, but until then, here’s where to start:

Step 1: Get a Better Understanding of What Drives Younger Generations to Volunteer Leadership

  • The social aspects of board service — being part of a team and larger community and developing personal and professional relationships within those spheres — will resonate with younger generations and help them feel valued.
  • While a donor can see exactly where their money is going by sponsoring a gala or new building, this does not have the meaningful societal impact that younger donors crave.
  • Younger generations are interested in personal and professional development and see the opportunity to assume greater responsibility and mentor others as the most attractive aspects of a leadership role.

Step 2: Be Intentional and Strategic About Recruiting Younger Board Members

  • One of the biggest challenges to recruiting young board members is just getting them in the door. Because of this, nonprofits need to make sure that the board and the development office are on the same page when it comes to these individuals.
  • Consideration should also be given to revising policies like steep giving requirements and in-person meeting times that are inconvenient for busy professionals.

Step 3: Develop a Robust Onboarding Program Tailored to the Needs of Younger Board Members

  • There is a steeper learning curve for younger and first time trustees, so adjusting to the board environment will require engaged and helpful colleagues and mentors who have a commitment to age diversity.
  • Ensure that the board chair is setting the tone for an inclusive and supportive culture.

Step 4: Invest in Cultivating Future Board Leaders

  • The commitment to leadership development goes beyond easing the transition of board-ready donors; the work should start years before someone is ready to serve.
  • Engage young supporters now on their leadership aspirations, not just their giving motivations.

If you’ve been struggling with your board diversity or have a story to share on how you’ve successfully improved your board’s age diversity, I would love to hear from you — whether that be in the comments or on Twitter. 

Topics: Youth Diversity

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