By Anthony Luna
Achieving a seat on the board of a nonprofit organization (NPO) is the reward engaged professionals earn after years of active service and significant financial contributions. Yet there is often a disconnect between nonprofit board members and the organization’s mission.
According to BoardSource’s biennial “Leading with Intent Report (2021), ”49 percent of chief executives believed they didn’t have board members who could “establish trust with communities they serve.” The report also found that only 30% of NPO board members are younger than 45 years old. Perhaps these statistics are related.
To improve the execution of missions, it’s crucial for leaders of nonprofits to cultivate the next generation of board members, which includes increasing the age diversity of officers sooner rather than later.
Reimagine The Qualifications
The traditional approach of giving board seats to individuals with a long history of significant donations, either personally or as a fundraiser, disqualifies younger professionals and community members. It’s time to rethink what qualifies someone to be a board member and open the role to younger adults.
One qualification is having the professional expertise and skills the organization needs. Potential board members might have experience in areas such as marketing, technology, human resources, or finance that could help the board make better decisions and improve the organization’s overall functioning. By bringing in younger board members with diverse professional backgrounds, the board can ensure it is making decisions that apply to the current business climate and the needs of the organization.
Another qualification to consider is personal experience. Community members who have experienced the issues the organization is working to address can bring a unique perspective to the board. They can offer insight into the needs of the community and help the board make more inclusive and impactful decisions.
Consider these suggestions to encourage younger people to take a greater role in the organization in ways that align with its goals and values.
Proactively seek, recruit, and develop outstanding candidates. This sounds obvious, but this step is too often overlooked. Young people can feel intimidated by older board members and senior staff who have been with the organization for years if not decades. It’s not an easy circle to break into. How this opportunity is marketed will improve the chances of attracting motivated, quality future leaders. Evaluate the active volunteer group for potential leaders and reach out to them. Create an environment that invites them to raise their hands and share their interest to contribute more. One way to do this is by creating a young professionals or junior leaders group. This unit can serve as a platform for identifying and nurturing potential board members. Invest in formal and informal leadership development and mentoring programs for potential board candidates.
Provide opportunities for leadership development. Highlight the skills and experiences potential board members will gain that they will be able to apply to their career, as well as to the organization. For example, they may learn about best practices for governance, strategic planning, financial management, and community engagement. They also will get opportunities to hone their decision-making and communication skills.
Demonstrate the importance of board diversity. Diversity is a key motivator for younger people, including age diversity. The younger generation is adamant that they have new perspectives to contribute.
Offer opportunities to enhance their values of social responsibility. Being socially responsible was a large part of the younger generation’s upbringing and a primary motivator for volunteering in the nonprofit sector. Emphasize the greater impact one could have by having a seat at the table where organizational decisions are made. Emphasize that serving on the board is a way to make a larger contribution and give back to their communities.
* Become more tech-friendly. Younger adults have high expectations regarding the use of technology to streamline operations, facilitate communication, and provide data that informs smart decisions. Not working with even a baseline of modern technology, say a donor management software, sends the wrong signal to young adults looking for an organization that understands them.
The leadership pipeline
Attracting young leadership is one task. Maintaining their interest and developing them into leaders who can serve the organization is another. Once the board identifies and recruits suitable candidates, it’s critical to keep them engaged, so they grow and stay committed to the organization. Here’s how:
Make them feel valued. Don’t utilize younger board members as workhorses, only doing grunge work as part of their development to take a leadership role. Solicit their contributions and opinions. Recognize and appreciate their contributions. Make sure they feel like their voices matter. Through formal and informal leadership training and mentoring relationships, give young leaders a platform to share the ideas that help them feel invested in the organization.
Be genuinely open to new ideas. There’s no point in giving young board members the chance to share their voices and ideas as a theoretical exercise. Don’t default to the objection of “it’s always done this way” and instead consider fresh perspectives and approaches. It doesn’t mean every new idea from a young leader needs to be implemented. Instead, run the ideas through a constructive feedback loop where others contribute and explore the feasibility and value of these ideas. If some suggestions are ultimately rejected or set aside to consider at a later date, at least the young leaders who suggested the ideas will know the organization takes them seriously. By showing a willingness to embrace change and innovation, the organization motivates further contributions from young leadership.
Be open and available for questions, mentoring, and networking. Current board members have considerable experience and deep networks in the nonprofit sector and their different professional fields. Opening those up to younger members is part of their leadership development.
Many people volunteer at nonprofits both for personal and professional reasons. Board members who introduce young people to others in their network and are available to answer questions about career growth as well as nonprofit operations, create tighter bonds with the next generation of organizational leadership.
Give them leadership roles
The last step in attracting and engaging young leadership is to make room on the board for them. This could mean shortening board terms, setting term limits, or expanding the board by a few seats. Recruiting and mentoring young people to take a place on the board will be difficult if openings aren’t available within a reasonable timeline. Creating the pathways and opportunities for young people to fully commit to the organization is a vital step to ensuring its long-term health to continue its mission.
Author: Anthony Luna is the chief executive officer of Coastline Equity, a commercial real estate advisory and property management firm based in Southern California