Building a youth-inclusive board
Updated: Dec 28, 2020
As organizations strive to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive, many are thinking about bringing on the next generation as leaders, sometimes in an advisory capacity, and sometimes as board members.
I'm a veteran of a youth-inclusive board, as the organization I founded and led for a decade involved young people on the board of directors from the very beginning. If I learned anything from this experience, it's that young people can add welcome fresh perspective, energy, and dare I say fun, to an organization -- but only if they're provided with the support they need to contribute their best.
You'll be surprised at how valuable it can be to have a well-prepared young person at the board table, weighing in with a fresh understanding of governance and asking questions that no adult would ever think of. Be prepared for "cutting to the chase" observations that will make some people squirm, as well as eye-opening, not to mention heart-opening, exchanges that enrich relationships and outcomes.
Here are six tips for building a board that includes youth:
Having youth on your board requires extra work. Once your board is enthusiastic about the idea -- and has had honest conversations about readiness, and respect, for this level of inclusion -- assess whether you truly have the capacity. You will need to dedicate staff and/or board member time to their orientation, preparation, explanation, evaluation and debriefing of board service and board meetings. Having a dedicated youth session before and after meetings provides for greater understanding and confidence that will pay great dividends in participation. Having a mentor/buddy for each youth board member can also help, if you have the appropriate adult board members.
Placing just one youth board member is tokenism. Aim for at least two, ideally three. At my organization, with a mission of youth-adult partnership, we had six seats for young people out of a board of 18. With more youth represented, every young board member didn't feel the pressure to carry the "youth perspective" all by her or himself. The youth board members should feel like a team, supporting each other, and bringing even more diversity to the board room.
For board meetings to effectively include young people there needs to be the rule that "there's no such thing as a dumb question." With this made explicit, young people (and adults for that matter) can feel safe in speaking up when they don't understand something. Chances are, these explanations will prove helpful for some of the adults as well.
Ideally there's a person who's a resource for the youth board members outside of the organization, e.g. a trusted teacher or counselor. This is someone who can assist with recruiting, evaluating, and providing support to both the youth board members and the adult board and staff leaders, to ensure things are going smoothly.
Consider having youth apply for board positions as an honor. Ask diverse sources for recommendations and referrals of youth leaders with the backgrounds and qualities you are seeking. The board service application process can help the young person clarify their intention and commitment, and the interview process can be a growth experience for all involved. Man, those kids can be inspiring!
Don't bring on youth who are all the same grade, or you will lose valuable experience all at once upon graduation. A diversity of ages means you'll be cultivating seasoned youth board leaders who will become role models for the younger ones who join.
As you can see, there's a lot that goes into making youth board participation work. But the power resulting from these cross-generational partnerships is well worth it, for your organization now, and for our society in the future.