A fresh breeze blows through a group when a boomer-heavy board of directors stops looking to its peers for new recruits. Non-profit groups are discovering that young board members bring energy and new ideas to their organizations – two traits that may be scarce in the boardroom.
Most non-profits are now hungry to bring age diversity to their boards, understanding that their evolution, if not their survival, requires a new generation of support.
"We need young people not only for audience development but also because their brains are wired differently. They're operating in a different cultural world view," says Donald Harrison, executive director, Ann Arbor Film Festival
"It's a good practice to engage younger board members – to create new leaders. I don't want to put somebody on just because they're young. We want someone who is actively engaged."
Young people don't typically seek out board memberships because they aren't aware that non-profit groups have boards or they're too busy establishing their careers to consider community service, observers say. They may think non-profits won't consider young people as board members – but that isn't true.
"I don't trust any board made up of all baby boomers," says veteran board member Newcombe Clark. Clark, 28, is a principal in Bluestone Realty Advisors
and publisher of Concentrate.
He currently serves on five boards and has at least that many more on his done-that list.
"Almost every group I know of wants to get young people on its board. I think they're all hungry," Clark says. That hunger can look threatening to youthful potential board members.
"It can be intimidating to join boards when you're younger. People who don't know me on the board are hesitant when I bring up new ideas, when they haven't seen my accomplishments from the past – it is my age. It's like their daughter telling them what to do,"
says Gurinder Singh.
Singh, 29, is vice president and director of events planning for the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce (IACC) of Michigan and board member of the South Asian Cultural Foundation, two area non-profits. She is an associate in the Ann Arbor office of the law firm of Miller Canfield.
Simply changing the marketing strategy for IACC events – using email, Facebook and outreach to other organizations – has led to larger turnouts, Singh says.
"The world is changing – IACC is reaching out to younger people. One of the goals of the chamber is to be a mentoring platform so successful business owners can mentor younger business owners in the community. If those younger people don't come to the events, they won't benefit from what the chamber has to offer," she says.
"I feel fortunate because I've volunteered since I was about 10 years old. Some of the people on boards have seen me grow up and seen things I've done in the past," she says. "I respect the older board members' experience in return."
Sometimes, the nature of an organization eases the way for younger people. Trek Glowacki, 28, serves on the board of trustees of Workantile Exchange, a new downtown Ann Arbor member-based co-working space. He has several projects going, including pro bono work centered on online technologies.
"I'm definitely the youngest person on the board by quite a few years. I present my ideas differently than older board members," Glowacki says. "Other board members are respectful when I present my ideas. That could be because the concept of shared workspace attracts modern-thinking people."
20-and 30-somethings are usually aware of two non-profit board responsibilities: keeping the group on the right side of the law and on mission, says Diana Kern, vice president of programming for NEW Center, an Ann Arbor service agency for non-profit organizations.
While they have a strong focus on the organization's mission, they don't generally get directors' fundraising responsibilities. "We have to teach them – but then they embrace it," Kern says. "We're seeing a lot of people in their 20s. They're very productive because they have no preconceived idea of what a non-profit board is."
NEW offers board training and BoardConnect, a matchmaking service for would-be directors and non-profit boards.
Angela Kujava, 31, used BoardConnect to find one aligned with her interests. She joined the board of 826michigan in 2007 and now serves as board president. "I saw that 826michigan wanted to expand its board and needed financial skills. I had heard of them and really loved what they do. That motivated me to join them," she says.
826michigan works with teachers to offer tutoring for students between the ages of 6 and 18 years old who have trouble writing, as well as skills development for young writers who like writing and are already proficient. Kujava is a financial planner who is launching a small business centered on writing.
"We have a tremendous board at the moment. Not everyone agrees, but people are exceptionally respectful. All of the ideas brought to the table are listened to and discussed," she says. "It's very important for people my age and younger to get involved. People think 'I don't have any experience in that' – board of directors sounds intimidating. But non-profit groups are clamoring for new ideas."
Adrian Pittman is selective when it comes to board participation. Pittman, 33, is director of development and partner in Module, a Royal Oak strategic development and management company. He currently serves on the advisory board of Eastern Michigan University's Integrated Marketing Communications graduate program.
"For me, there's a significant amount of professional value to being on boards – for meeting people and for having influence over a particular organization. It says a lot when you're on a series of boards. It says your opinion is worth considering," Pittman says.
He cautions against joining boards that aren't reactive or well-organized. "Time is such a rare commodity. I've dropped out of the less-active groups." he says. "It's easy to make time for something that's going to yield a benefit. The challenge is identifying the groups that want to accomplish something."
Other Pittman tips for would-be board members: Think about what's important to you. Find an organization that's geared the same way. A board membership will be far more productive if there's a philosophical similarity. Because board memberships are usually by invitation, it pays to network, he adds. Offering yourself as a resource for a board that interests you is another avenue of approach.
Lack of a flexible schedule may be a barrier. More-junior people in the corporate hierarchy can't take off mid-morning for a two-hour meeting as easily as the CEO can. Board service requires buy-in from superiors. Some young board aspirants may also fear being sidelined to the kids' table rather than being given full membership privileges.
Young people who have chosen to participate on boards find acceptance and encouragement, not skepticism, from older directors. As board members, they also gain professional credibility for themselves and visibility for their companies.
"I bring a lot of creativity, energy, and optimism to the board. It's good to have in the mix. Older board members have told me they really like the energy that I brought to the organization. They've asked me if I know of other young people who would consider being part of the board," Singh says.
Another big advantage: access to people who might otherwise be unreachable. Fellow directors see young people in action at each monthly meeting. Without the board membership, it could take months of effort and a big helping of luck to get an audience with those same senior people.
For the organization, the advantages of having youthful board members far outweigh the disadvantages, seasoned board members say. While it's easier to go after existing donors or people of means with an established giving record when filling board slots, a group may risk tarnishing its image among young people if it ignores them as potential directors.
Constance Crump is an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press and Billboard Magazine. This article originally appeared in Concentrate.