Here's a well-documented fact: in the nonprofit sector, most boards are lacking in diversity, especially when it comes to people of color and women. (We wrote about the former, and how to change it, a couple of months ago.) We also know that more diversity on a board tends to bring positive, lasting results to the organizations governed by those boards. There's another population that is often overlooked for board service, however, one that is well positioned to bring new and different perspectives to nonprofit board deliberations. I'm talking about millennials.
According to BoardSource, 57 percent of nonprofit board members are over the age of 50, while only 17 percent are under 40 (about the age of the oldest millennial). While work experience and years of service often translate to effective board service, so, too, can the fresh perspective and ground-level experience that younger professionals often possess. In our work at Community Resource Exchange, we see the value that young people bring to nonprofit boards. For example, one of our clients recently was looking to re-engage and strengthen its board, and it did so by recruiting a group of twenty- and thirty-something program participants to join the board. In no time, the new board members were able to provide their (significantly older) colleagues with first-hand knowledge of the organization's programs and share their deep understanding of social media and cultural trends. In this and many other ways, the fresh perspective of the younger board members reinvigorated the older board members and energized them to engage with new ideas, emerging technologies, and the increasingly important role of social networks.
This is precisely the kind of value-add nonprofits should seek out in board members. All too often, though, boards are seen solely as a source of funding for the nonprofits they serve. The proper role of a board of directors is much more than that. Boards are tasked with setting the direction of the organization, ensuring that it has adequate resources, and providing fiduciary oversight. They support the strategic direction of the organization by helping to set that strategy, making connections to ensure its successful implementation, and monitoring activities, outcomes, and goals. When we move beyond the narrow conception of board service as fundraising and see it for the important governance role it is, then the value of having millennials on a board is even easier to see. By introducing younger perspectives and experiences into board deliberations, governance tends to become more creative, flexible, and plugged into our rapidly changing world. And who wouldn't want that? Ready to get started? Read on!
1. Identify your slice of the issue-area pie. There are many nonprofits out there working to effect the same outcomes and applying for the same grants as your nonprofit. And you know that differentiating your organization's work from the work of other organizations is important to its success. But when it comes to recruiting young board members, you need to understand that millennials are more interested in getting behind a cause than an institution, and they prefer to do so in interesting and innovative ways. Clarifying your organization's unique value-add as it applies to creating change is essential before you start to recruit young people to your board. Ask yourself: What do we do that represents a different approach or solution to our issue? What is it about our mission that brings people together around our cause? Highlighting the compelling work your organization does is not enough. You need to explain how your approach is unique and why your organization is the one all millennials should want to support.
2. Take it back to show-and-tell. Remember back in the day, sitting in your third-grade classroom and listening to a friend's description of her new toy, and her going on and on and on… The moment, however, she showed the rest of you her show-and-tell item, you and your classmates would emit a collective “Ohhhh” and lean forward, as if enthralled by the power of seeing and experiencing. Let's bring back show-and-tell! Prospective millennial board members eager to make a difference can listen to explanations of your organization's value proposition all day long, but the real hook for most of them will be when you follow up the telling with some showing. That means taking them on site visits to meet program participants or giving them an opportunity to deliver a much-needed service for a day. Show them the impact your organization is having every day and connect that impact to how their service on your board will contribute to and amplify that work. Young people are eager to give back — but they also want to feel and see their own impact. By showing the impact of your programs and how it relates to your board's work, prospective millennial board members will have a much clearer idea of the connection between your organization and the community it serves and how they can contribute.
3. Build in accountability and camaraderie. The world that young professionals have to navigate is fast-paced and rapidly changing, and service on a nonprofit board is another commitment they need to balance. What can you do to hold them accountable and committed to their board duties? One great tool for bringing millennials on to a board is the cohort onboarding model, in which a group of new board members all begin their service at the same time. Such an approach helps to establish a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose among new members and make them more likely to hold each other accountable in terms of their service. I experienced this first-hand in my service on the alumni board of City Year New York, which brings on a new cohort of young board members every year and assigns them to various committees where they work closely with five to seven peers. The number of times I chose not to skip a board meeting because I knew my peers would hold me accountable is a testament to the effectiveness of the model. (Buddy systems and accountability partners are other options if the cohort onboarding model isn't right for your organization.) Another advantage of building accountability and camaraderie into board service? Critical mass. Power in numbers means increased commitment among members of the group and will also increase the amount of creative ideas it tends to generate.
4. Be open to all types of contributions. Board service is typically thought of as giving your time, connections, and financially (through your own gifts — the "give" — and/or your fundraising efforts — the "get"). When it comes to younger professionals who may be less able to give financially, you need to be open to other kinds of giving — for example, resources they may have access to through their place of work, their personal and school networks, and/or their creative fundraising ideas. Younger board members should be encouraged to share their time and talents beyond the "give," and to facilitate that sharing, your board chair and executive team should set clear yet flexible expectations around their giving. Valuing and recognizing the different kinds of contributions millennials can make will contribute to greater diversity of thought on your board (as well as more outside-the-box thinking), and add to the range of assets and skills on which your organization can draw.
5. Establish a culture of inclusivity, open-mindedness, and communication. Before it can be open to the possibility of millennial board members, your current board and executive team should be open to contributions from professionals of all ages and backgrounds. Which means your organizations should take the steps needed to create both an organizational and board culture that values different perspectives, ideas, and contributions. To reinforce that kind of openness, the processes for board ideation, planning, and decision-making should be transparent (i.e., clearly defined and communicated) and inclusive of all voices.
Of course, none of these practices will get much traction if your organization is not actively committed to supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion — and that means age and experience as well as race, gender identity, abilities, and sexual orientation. We cannot emphasize this enough: It's important to always value your board members for who they are and how they can contribute — not just for what they can contribute.
Remember, the fresh perspectives, creativity, and new ideas that millennials bring to your nonprofit board will only serve to strengthen your organization!
Erin M. Connell is an associate consultant at CRE, a nonprofit consulting firm that provides the strategies and tools needed to build sustainable, high-performing organizations.