A proving ground for board service

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

When Forbes magazine published its list of 20 Best Cities For Young Professionals last month, Indianapolis was No. 10.

But Jesamyn Sparks, Shae LeDune and Trevor Bruner would take the description one step further: Indy has a vibrant young professional network. And the three have had a hand in creating it.

Bruner is co-president of the executive committee of Agave, the Eiteljorg Museum’s young professional group. LeDune is an executive committee member. Sparks is president of the Ronald McDonald House’s Young Professional Board, and has assumed other leadership responsibilities during her five years as a volunteer.

While young professional boards are a relatively recent phenomenon, nationally, nonprofits have begun to find opportunities to capture the attention of the 21-to-40-age group.

“I think that nonprofits are really recognizing the value of tapping into a slightly different demographic than traditional boards. It’s really about thinking ahead and keeping the boards fresh,” said Sparks. “It’s great to see organizations around town that are embracing that strategy to start cultivating those board members earlier.”

Sparks credits the Ronald McDonald House with having the foresight to recognize this untapped resource seven years ago. Agave got its start 10 years ago.

LeDune said that educating her age group about Central Indiana nonprofits is key to the organizations’ future. Her former boss, Tom Hoback, who was an Eiteljorg board member, recruited her. Initially, he relied on her for advice about how to get younger people in the museum’s door, but then he realized she would be a great fit for the auxiliary.

LeDune is not alone in her volunteer service. Agave has six people on its executive committee and the Ronald McDonald House engages a 12-member leadership board and 10 additional committee members in volunteer activities.

Other nonprofits, like Goodwill and the Children’s Bureau, have created similar groups, Sparks said. BoardSource, a national organization working to strengthen nonprofit board leadership, has challenged boards to reflect the constituency they serve. Sparks said that has never been an issue at the Ronald McDonald House because typically, individuals come to serve because they have a personal connection.

“That direct experience is a really powerful thing, and I believe that it’s critical for the health and success of an organization to keep everybody focused,” said Sparks. “The mission of what the Young Professionals are trying to do is to support the mission of the House.”

The House has two-year board terms. Agave is less formal and has an organic transition for its leadership. Both boards have bylaws. As presidents, Bruner and Sparks attend their organizations’ board meetings, but leave when the board is in executive session and do not cast votes.

“So we kind of get an inside look. We get to sit in and see what the museum has planned, and get updates as the year goes along about how those initiatives are going. We can bring that to our board to make sure that whatever we’re doing is in line with what (the museum) needs, so we can complement what they have going on,” said Bruner.

Communication between the young professionals and the nonprofits is supported by staff liaisons who attend all their meetings, take notes and answer questions.

Agave executive committee members must attend their group’s meetings, volunteer for the museum at least five hours annually and be a museum ambassador. They are responsible for setting the strategic direction for their group, plan events, secure sponsors and recruit museum members from their age group. There is not a personal contribution expectation, other than an annual $30 membership fee.

The Ronald McDonald House’s group functions much like a board. There is an expected $50 annual minimum contribution.

“Although when you add in other events, fundraising that’s happening here at the House and campaigns, certainly our board and leadership committee members do tend to give more than just the expected amount. It is certainly not required, but people get excited about the mission of the House, and they connect with the stories,” said Sparks.

Both groups regularly champion the work of their parent organizations to young professionals, using informal informational sessions and the city’s organized professional networks. They are also able to share their groups’ missions at a young professionals’ roundtable group.

But both groups believe the key to involving their generation is getting them through the door.

“We like to invite new members to participate in the quarterly dinners we host for families by bringing a food item, serving families and talking with families. Just physically being in the House is important. To me it is a real hopeful place, and I think sometimes for someone who hasn’t really spent a lot of time there, it can be a surprise. I was surprised when I first started volunteering here years ago,” said Sparks.

One of Agave’s primary activities is recruiting museum members from their age group. Typically, there are 50 to 75 members annually. Bruner, with his co-president Brian Cusimano, added a personal commitment to secure at least five new members unique to their networks.

There is a $30 fee, which includes access to the museum and Agave’s social events.

“Agave tries to educate and engage young professionals in the world of contemporary, Western and Native American art to develop the next generation of Eiteljorg visitors and leadership. I think if we can get new people through the door, then they are going to see the world of the Eiteljorg. There is amazing art and so much more that I think people just don’t realize,” said LeDune.

The Ronald McDonald House’s board plans three fundraising events each year — a trivia night, a bingo event and a Colts viewing party — with all of those funds going directly back to the House. Sparks said she’s proudest of the game room that the group helped fundraise for.

“We’re always available to help whenever the House needs us. And I like to think that we’ve helped to grow that segment of the donor base that maybe previously just scratched the surface,” said Sparks.

Agave offers networking social events in conjunction with new exhibits and scavenger hunts to learn more about the museum. When the museum had the guitars exhibit a few years back, the group did a summer event called Jorgstock with bands and food. This year, they are making changes to keep it fresh.

Both groups are excited about the opportunities to learn from current nonprofit board members.

Agave is actually formalizing its approach and putting a mentorship program in place, pairing each Agave executive committee member with a museum board member.

“I think it’s priceless. There are so many people on the board who have done so much with the museum, but outside that are just successful people. To have a mentor like that, I think is going to be great. I think it will be a big time value proposition for Agave folks. They get direct access to community leaders, and they get to see exactly what goes into board member service,” said Bruner.

The three think there is an opportunity to learn more about governance, how nonprofits function and the ethical responsibilities of board members.

Bruner offers advice for young professionals thinking about service.

“If you are interested in getting involved, I say ‘Dive in.’ If I had to say anything, it would be, ‘Go for it,”’ he said.

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