The ranks of Gen-X and Gen Y, that 20 to 45-year-old demographic so sought after by advertisers, will provide the board members of the future. How do nonprofits attract and incorporate these young professionals into existing boards and -- other than to replace retiring older board members -- why should they?
Those were the questions discussed by panelists at the July 16 Governance Matters Roundtable.
How? By bringing young professionals on to the existing governing body or your organization. Or by setting up a "junior board that feeds ideas, skills and funds to your "big" board.
Why? Younger board members bring a different energy, new ways of communicating, and fresh ideas, according to the panelists. Their value lies in sweat equity, energy, and new skills versus the contacts and money brought to an organization by older, established board members. In addition:
A "junior" board can be a pipeline for knowledgeable, talented, dedicated future members of the "big" board.
- The Gen-X predecessors -- the Baby Boomers -- may already be over-committed to boards and causes. Your board may be the first and only focus of that Gen-Xer's energy and skill, panelists suggested.
- Younger people communicate in new ways and understand how to exploit new media to build your brand, raise money, and enlist volunteers.
- Reaching out to a new peer group increases public awareness of your organization and broadens your fund-raising base.
- A younger board member or a junior board changes the conversation and may revitalize a board that has gotten into a rut.
Getting ready for change
Any new board member, whether young or not-so young, must be incorporated into the existing board. Doing so requires preparation. The skills needed by the organization must be determined and everyone must be willing to treat the new member as an equal with ideas worth listening to, even if those skills come with a younger point of view.
Setting up a junior board requires all of that and something more: A clear plan by the "big" board as to what the junior board will do, how its activities will be incorporated into the organization and what is expected of members of the junior board.
The existing board must buy into the idea of a junior board. That buy-in is best achieved through a strategic planning process that clarifies the value of the new entity to the long-term health of the organization and answers the questions:
- Will the junior board be primarily social, just to raise awareness of the organization?
- Will it fund-raise?
- How will the monies raised be used?
- How will the junior board pay for its activities?
- Will the junior board have any fiduciary responsibility?
- How will members be recruited?
- What commitment in time or money will be required of junior board members?
- How will the two boards communicate to align their goals and activities?
- To whom will the junior board report, how often and by what means: written or in person at a board meeting?
- For what actions will it need approval from the "big" board and what can it do without prior approval?
- Will the junior board be a separate entity or a committee of the larger board?
- Will the junior board chair be a member of the "big" board?
- Will junior board members sit on committees of the "big" board even if they are not members of that board?
- Is there an expectation that some junior board members will become members of the "big" board? Who or what will determine that transition?
Screening for the right fit
Not just any warm body will do, the panelists repeatedly emphasized. Screening for a junior board member must be done as zealously as for the chairman of your "big" board. And that's true for both the organization and the potential board member.
Passion counts. For the person seeking an organization with which to work, the advice was to look for:
- an organization whose mission engages you;
- a level of commitment that you are willing to make;
- no conflicts of interest.
For the organization, look for people who are:
- passionate about what you do,
- understand your mission
- willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
Screening requires multiple interviews, with open discussion of specific needs and expectations. In the best case, it will include visits to program sites to see the work and impact of the program first-hand. Nothing so encourages passion as connection to the people involved.
Bringing younger board members on board
It takes more than a welcome packet, the infamous "elevator" speech, and a round of handshakes to incorporate any new board member, especially one from a different demographic.
- Treat the new board member as an equal. Whether a member of the regular board or of a junior board, do not compare him/her to your child or grandchild.
- Encourage and discuss membership in various committees; do not pigeon-hole or limit opportunities to learn and participate.
- Solicit the ideas and opinions of the new board member and be open to change.
- Recognize that the addition of a board member or junior board changes the fabric of the organization and of the "big" board. More energy and new ideas mean the conversation will change and old ways of doing things will be questioned.
- Create opportunities for board members to mesh outside the board room, either in social activities or in an off-site retreat.
Finding young professionals to serve
Members of Gen-X and Gen-Y want to serve but often don't know how to make the connections to nonprofit organizations in need of boards. The panelists suggested that nonprofits reach out to alumni organizations, graduate schools in general, and business schools in particular to spread the word regarding service in the nonprofit sector.
In addition, several match-making agencies train potential board and junior board members, screen them to determine interests and skills, then match them with boards in need of members.
United Way Linkages
Junior League Nonprofit Board Training
All of these organizations provide screening questionnaires to help potential board members define what kind of organizations they can become passionate about and what skills they have to offer.
Alex Panilio, board member and treasurer of the board of Forestdale, Inc. and senior vice president -- mergers and acquisitions -- for the National Financial Partners Corp.
Nicole Sebastian is an associates with Heidrick and Struggles, where she works to build for-profit boards. She is a member of the Young Professionals Committee of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
Nelson Hioe handles investment and new business develop in real estate and is a member of the board of United Neighborhood Houses.
The moderator, Libby Costas, is executive director of The Frances L & Edwin L. Cummings Memorial Fund. She serves on the Director and Governance Committee of Philanthropy New York.