Youth on board: Attracting and supporting young people on boards

Posted on 29 Mar 2012

A long standing challenge for groups in the sector is to attract young people to their board, and then retain them as board members. Board Builder spoke with Alex Swallow - a young board member from the UK who is trying to spread the word about board members, and about what groups can do to attract and hold onto them.

Board Builder: How do you believe organisations can attract more young people as board members?

Alex Swallow: The first thing is just for boards to decide that they want to include young people, or that they want to add to their board's diversity. There is no one way of attracting young people; in fact this would be entirely the wrong approach because young people are as diverse in their tastes and preferences as anyone else.

Many boards simply ask their existing contacts if they would consider becoming board members. While this is understandable it means that the same type of people may populate boards again and again.

There are already groups who do fantastic work reaching out to young people and charities could use them and learn from the experience of others. A lot of success is where best practice is shared.

Board Builder: We talk a lot about what groups can do to attract young people as board members, but what can young people do to get attracted to boards (or get onto the right ones)?

There is a charity out there for every interest. Of course, not all these groups will be local but young people can be innovative so that their passion is fulfilled.

For example if they are interested in the environment they might become a board member of a non-environmental local charity with a view to helping them, in time, to improve their green commitments.

The crucial thing is to make sure that young people know that they can join boards and then the task is a lot easier.

When I say that we need to make sure that they "know" I don't mean merely that we advertise the fact and then leave them to it. I mean, for example, that we find role models for them so that they can look at other young trustees and think "they aren't so different to me, I could do that".

Board Builder: Where should organisations look to attract more young people?

Alex Swallow: There is no one way - I would say it is a mix of obvious things like working with organisations that are already in contact with many young people, and being innovative in thinking about where young people get messages from and who will inspire them.

Young people are more likely to accept a message from someone who they think has some credibility.

Board Builder: Is it important that young people can share their experiences of being on a board?

Alex Swallow: Yes - one of the things that really needs to be brought forward is the individual experience of the brilliant young board members who are out there making a difference.

The issue in general is hardly a "sexy" subject but when the stories are at a very human level they are a lot more interesting.

I do feel that things are slowly beginning to change and the positive reception that Young Charity Trustees has had so far is a good example of that.

Board Builder: Do you think young people look for different things in boards (or are attracted to different things in boards) than slightly older ones? What, why?

Alex Swallow: I think it is possible to make a few generalisations about causes.

For example younger people might be more likely to be interested in environmental issues. Secondly I think that from a personal perspective, young people will be looking to learn and experience things that will enhance their careers.

In a board member role it is entirely possible that they will have a lot more responsibility than they do in their day jobs.

So long as the pressure isn't too much, this is often a brilliant experience for younger board members.

Board Builder: Attracting young people is one thing, offering ongoing support another. How should organisations support young board members?

Alex Swallow: One important thing that they can do is to make sure that they have a formal induction process.

In my own case I had meetings arranged for me with the key people in the organisation. I was also given a place at a national conference for trustees/board members, which was a really interesting experience.

Another key point is that young board members, or indeed any new board members, should be encouraged to ask as many questions as they like about the organisation and about the expectations of them.

Not only will this help bring them up to speed more quickly but it will also be a good opportunity for the organisation to re-examine itself. If someone asks: "So, why do you do X that way" often people find that actually there isn't a good reason and efficiencies could be made!

Young board members should also not be treated as a token (this is less likely if the charity can recruit more than one young person to the board). For example it isn't right to ask them what young people would think of something as if they are representative of all young people, or to discount them because they are less experienced.

As with all board members, the board should focus on discovering what skills they can bring to the table so that they can make a positive contribution.

Board Builder: You mention the problem of young people finding they are the only young board members. How can other board members make them feel welcome?

Alex Swallow: The simplest answer is to make sure that they are not the only young board member for too long!

Other practical steps might be to have another board member mentor the young person. Having some social time together - going to the pub or for a coffee - may be helpful too.

Board Builder: Young people can feel daunted when going onto a board, especially if they don't feel like they have the experience fellow board members do. How can they address this?

Alex Swallow: This is a hard question because a lot will depend on how much the organisation they are joining reaches out to them.

A good induction, as already mentioned, will be a big help. One way for young trustees to be less daunted is talk to other young people who are already on boards.

As with many things in life, having someone who knows what you are going through because they have experienced it too, makes a difference. If it becomes an issue they should talk to a sympathetic member of the board or perhaps the chief executive of the organisation.

In many cases the rest of the board may not be aware how the young person is feeling or even if they are aware may not think to do something about it unless they are prompted a little. If everyone has the interests of the charity at heart, most issues should be possible to sort out.

Board Builder: If you had to offer advice to organisations in order to get them to attract and support young people, what would it be?

Alex Swallow:

1. Be proud of yourselves for even trying to get young people involved - many organisations don't. You don't have to try to improve everything overnight, but each step you take will get easier.

2. Consider using social media to reach out to younger people. Not only are younger people likely to be familiar with these methods as a way of picking up information, but a Twitter account or Facebook group will cost you nothing more than the time you put into it.

3. Don't try to reinvent the wheel. Talk to other organisations that already have young people on their board - what did they do?

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