by Tashi Copeland, communications manager at CICF
This year, I turned 29. This means old enough to vote. Old enough to grab a glass of wine at Daniel’s Vineyard. And old enough to rent a car. And while I have years of professional experience — and even a few gray hairs — I’m still not top of mind to be a member of anyone’s board of directors. Why is that?
I had the opportunity to watch Dr. Una Osili, associate dean for research and international programs and Dean’s Fellow for the Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, present The Truth About Board Diversity. During her presentation, Dr. Osili indicated that while diversity may be trending positively regarding gender — and making some progress with racial diversity — age is still a challenge in the not-for-profit board makeup.
“We find that age is an area where many nonprofits simply do not have anybody under the age of 39 on their boards. And 39 is not necessarily young, but that just gives you a sense that board members tend to be much older than the average population,” Dr. Osili said.
As of 2021, the average age of the U.S. population is 38. When board members are such powerful pieces of the not-for-profit chessboard, organizations must commit to making their boards reflect the communities they serve. For these organizations to successfully do this, they must address some barriers young people face in obtaining these seats.
One such barrier is mandatory-giving policies for their board members. According to a 2018 Board Source Survey, 68% of not-for-profit organizations have a policy requiring board members to make a personal contribution annually. I understand that board members need to prove their commitment to the organization beyond attending board meetings, and a financial gift easily checks that box.
But consider this. In 2021,
- the average student loan debt in 2021 was $28,950,
- the national average cost for a used car was $25,000,
- and the national average price of a home was $287,148 — up 13.2% from 2020.
So, while my fellow Millennials and I would love to make a sizeable donation, our current cost of living may not allow us to give the extra $5,000 to sit on a board. And that should not take us out of the running to serve as leaders. Young people have time and talent — just not as much treasure.
Now is the time for organizations to create diverse boards and put their capital in action by sponsoring a board seat (look to the Mosaic Fellowship for a potential roadmap). Many organizations’ boards and executive leadership have voiced their struggles about engaging with younger generations. Inviting us to the table would be a game-changer and ensure a smoother transition from one generation of leaders to the next.
Some may have concern that someone younger simply does not have the life experience to lead. This case doesn’t hold anymore. Our technological revolution has led my generation to learn, connect, and produce faster than ever before. Additionally, we’ve grown into adulthood during some of our nation’s most significant historical moments — 9/11, marriage equality, the Great Recession, the tragic normalization of school shootings, a racial reckoning, and a global pandemic, just to name a few. As a result, our worldview was developed through a newer lens of empathy and an appreciation of diversity than previous generations, which most are still wrestling with. But that doesn’t quite translate nicely in LinkedIn profile. Maybe we should all start adding that to our resume’s special skills section?
Including a younger demographic in board structures has proven success. According to the Impact of Diversity Study, boards with higher percentages of members aged 39 or younger tend to be more engaged in governance and have higher involvement. Additionally, this demographic is more likely to have board members who ask others for donations. Young people are more than willing to give up their time while also leveraging their networks to bring in dollars. The engagement is there. The fundraising is there.
If organizations continue to lack the intentionality of having younger representation during quarterly conversations, the voice of an entire generation will be silenced. Organizations literally can’t afford to take that risk. Don’t continue to use board tenure or limited networks as excuses. So many organizations have risen to the challenge of navigating and reworking business practices during this global pandemic. Increasing diversity in the boardroom is just another modification these organizations will have to address.
One of the most powerful concepts when speaking on diversity is the diversity of thought. Bringing in younger board members allows organizations to gain perspectives from a generation redefining business strategy, economic success, and stakeholder priorities. Organizations can fully view operational and reputational risks and opportunities for growth through a new lens by simply inviting this next generation of leaders to the table. We’re ready.