This article was shared with Common Good VT by our friends at the National Council of Nonprofits. A huge thanks to our colleagues at the National Council on Nonprofits, the author of this article, Jennifer Chandler, and the rest of our peers around the national network! Stay tuned for upcoming information about the work of the National Council on Nonprofits and check them out online here!
You’re only as old as you feel
When a question landed in my inbox last week about youth serving on nonprofit boards, my thoughts turned to our society’s attitudes towards age and the role that charitable nonprofits can play in bridging the “generation gap.” The question in my inbox was: “Are there any programs that prepare youth to serve on nonprofit boards?” The question prompted me to think about the distance between young and old, and how nonprofits bridge what I think of as a “perspectives gap.”
But first, let’s clarify a threshold issue relating to the question posed. While seven states (Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Utah) prevent anyone under the “majority age” (usually 18) from serving as a board member of a nonprofit corporation, most states are silent about the age of board members. This leaves the decision about what age is appropriate for board members up to the individual nonprofits. (To our knowledge there are no state laws that restrict older individuals from serving on boards.) If you are curious what your state law says about the age of board members, you can research the statutes that govern nonprofit corporations in your state at LawForChange.org.
The post “Youth Board Members: Can minors serve on nonprofit boards?” by Emily Chan, co-author of the Nonprofit Law Blog, gives an excellent overview of the legal issues raised when young people serve on boards. Chan raises many important questions nonprofits should tackle before inviting youth to take on decision-making roles, and she offers several alternatives to board service. Chan’s post is very comprehensive (and we always appreciate Nonprofit Law Blog’s carefully researched resources). My own view is that whether someone under 18 should serve on a nonprofit board should not turn on whether the “youth board member will feel isolated” or “what skills or training the youth board member needs that the organization currently does not provide?” Isolation, preparation for taking on the fiduciary duties that board service requires, and other issues are equally relevant across the age spectrum. What we are really exploring when we ask the age question is whether this particular individual has skills and experiences that will add value to the board’s work and/or whether placing that person on a governing board is necessary to fulfill other goals, such as growing the bench of leadership for the organization, or creating ambassadors to segments of stakeholders that are important for the nonprofit’s work.
Conscious of the need for continuity of leadership, many nonprofits cultivate talent, whether young or old, to make sure that multiple perspectives are represented on their board and that when one generation steps aside, another is ready to take its place. “It’s something the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits advocates, as we want to see nonprofits grow their leadership and ensure that other generations are ready to serve,” explains Trisha Lester, Vice President of the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits. “Authentically engaging young people as partners and decision-makers is a crucial and challenging topic for youth-serving nonprofits (and other groups). Service on governance boards can be a powerful way to do this, but there are other ways to accomplish the goal of giving this particular constituency voice,” says Molly O’Connell, Resources and Advocacy Coordinator at the Maine Association of Nonprofits. Looked at another way, we all need mentors, and when seasoned seniors can pass their wisdom and insights on to younger generations – whether defined as under 18 or under 30 – everybody wins over time. (If you think that working with board members is a little like herding cats, this 60 Minutes story about the importance of role models for elephants may suggest a different analogy!)
Moreover, a board that boasts a diversity of perspectives is simply better-poised for scenario planning. Different life experiences not only help board members see around the organization’s corners, but also help the organization see challenges in the community more clearly. Such added perspective can lead to more effective problem-solving and greater impact. When the work of charitable nonprofits reflects diverse perspectives, this is a perfect example of a “triple bottom line” ROI because it benefits the nonprofit, volunteers, and the community.
At the National Council of Nonprofits we are strong believers in the value of proactively preparing leaders and diversifying governing boards (and staff) of nonprofits. We also believe in the important role that charitable nonprofits play as places where people in communities, young and old, of all shapes, sizes, and colors, come together to learn from each other and collaboratively solve problems.
So what does age have to do with it? Age, like any other characteristic, adds meaningful texture to our own perspectives. And the perspectives of charitable nonprofits are really all about the perspectives of individuals in communities, coming together through nonprofits, to affect change and improve their worlds.
Resources about diversity on boards (National Council of Nonprofits)
Resources about cultural competency (Bridgestar and BoardSource)