Youth Movement Critical For Boards

June 1, 2009       Mark Hrywna      

The number of nonprofit board members needed each year exceeds the 24 million population of Texas. "We discovered in surveying our marketplace, in any given year from one to the next, there’s a call or a need for 26 million board members," said Linda Crompton, president and CEO of BoardSource in Washington, D.C.

Almost three-quarters of nonprofit boards are comprised of Baby Boomers (those age 46-64), according to BoardSource’s Nonprofit Governance Index survey. Only 2 percent are younger than 30, with almost 30 percent between the ages of 30 and 49.

With 77 million Baby Boomers approaching retirement age, the intergenerational transfer of wealth was the good news for charities. This is the bad news: "We thought it (the need for board members) was going to be a tidal wave, and it looks more like a tsunami. It’s a huge issue looming on the horizon," Crompton said.

"We’re definitely seeing an aging of nonprofit boards right now," said Scott Leff, assistant director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. "The general struggle right now is to find good board members at the beginning, because there’s such a proliferation of nonprofits. So, there’s a lot of competition for a limited pool of good and interested folks to get in," Leff said.

The scarcity of board members could affect the future growth of the nonprofit sector, Crompton said. "At the very least, it’s bound to have a slowing effect. You can’t really keep continuing to create new nonprofit organizations when you just don’t have people to fill the boards," she said. "Inevitably the development that you’ll start to see is more organizations merging outright, getting together to form some kind of partnership because it’s too difficult to get the talent they need."

Among the challenges in finding younger board members is the pull between being "in the heart of building families and careers," Leff said. Carving out additional time to serve on nonprofit boards is difficult, but "especially in an increasingly scrutinized environment, with increasing pressure on nonprofits from a fiduciary and governance perspective."

Calling it "fundamental to sustainability," Leff said most active and aware organizations are dealing with this issue regularly. "The board is part of the lifeblood of the organization, so nonprofits need to constantly be re-assessing their strengths, weaknesses, gaps, and succession planning," he said.

BoardSource is developing its strategic plan for the next five years and plans to incorporate ways to address issues of recruiting younger board members.

Nonprofits must learn more about Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1979) and Generation Y (1980 to 2000), said Crompton. "We’re going to need to know a lot more about how they view board service itself," she said, and BoardSource plans to develop new curriculum around its publications, including an edition of its board member magazine that highlights Gen X and Y board members.

"It really affects everything you do. Obviously an area people focus on tends to be technology," Crompton said. For example, in focus groups by BoardSource, younger people were asked whether they would like to receive materials electronically, Crompton said, but they didn’t understand the question, as it was a mystery to them how they might get materials otherwise. "Clearly, there are some large disconnects in the way boards operate now and the way they’ll need to operate," she said, whether that’s looking at how they deliver materials or more generally what the needs of boards will be going forward. Another key area to identify with younger candidates is fundraising, she said, as social networking sites create whole new ways of addressing fundraising.

As Baby Boomers keep moving their way through, it will affect certain types of nonprofits faster than others because some are a bit more immune to pressures of it, such as family foundations. "But even they are realizing if they want to keep legacies alive, you need to keep active with younger generations," Crompton said. She expects the transition to have a definite impact that nonprofits will feel in the next five years, as it becomes more difficult to recruit board members and competition for potential board candidates increases.

John Townsend, director of reproductive health at the Population Council in New York City, serves on several nonprofit boards, including the ICA Foundation and the Wellesley Women’s Center. He also is a technical advisor to the International Federation of Family Planning and Interagency Gender Working Group.

There’s a learning process for people to work on boards, Townsend said, in which people must have a set of perspectives and skills to be effective. "There does seem to be a need for mentoring," he said, even if only to get young people to understand how boards work and interact with management and leadership.

A key issue to finding the right board members is defining the role of that particular board, Townsend said. If it’s a governance board, he said, that’s really the finances of an organization and likely to get more business- and investment-oriented people. Meanwhile, a technology board might change depending on what the issues are and an ethics board is likely to get a mix.

Peter Donaldson, president of Population Council in New York City, offered the appointment of Justin Rockefeller to his board this year as an example of how to identify potential members. Rockefeller had shown a documented interest in the organization, making contributions and attending some events.

In addition to being among the youngest on the Population Council’s board, Rockefeller is co-founder of GenerationEngage, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan youth-civic-engagement initiative that connects young Americans, particularly those who fall outside the boundaries of university campuses, to one another, to political leaders and to other civic organizations.

Links to other people’s networks of colleagues — and potential fundraisers — is "why you want diversity," Donaldson said. "It’s an important obligation that we take seriously," he added. Board members develop a list of potential new trustees and a smaller nominating committee screens them.

Population Council has discussed possible future events aimed at younger staff and professionals, such as an under-40 breakfast/reception or public presentation of some kind, Donaldson said, with an effort toward a "more systematic outreach effort using professional staff."

When Susan Marshall started MPowering Kids several years ago, some board members were in their early 60s. Today, most of the nine board members for the Long Island, N.Y.-based nonprofit are in their 40s. The transition began as the older board members left, looking to reduce their workload at that point in their lives. Peer-to-peer recruiting by board members generally brought in potential candidates of a similar age, she said, so it helps to have younger people in that case.

If organizations rely on older board members to identify young people, Townsend said, they’re probably going to get older board candidates.

Marshall also credits boardnetusa.org, a nonprofit board matching Web site, with helping her find three current board members. "We use it as an online recruiting tool," she said, and it tends to skew board members of a younger age and brings a more Internet-savvy crowd, including some of her youngest trustees. "I like that we have all younger people, but we’re not specifically looking for that," Marshall said, aiming to diversify the expertise and life experience of the board. "On the other hand, there’s a real camaraderie because everyone is in that same age group," she added.

Anne Marie Agnelli said that she joined the board of MPowering Kids because she’s found that younger organizations generally have smaller boards, which tend to allow members to do more and be more hands-on. "For some of us, it’s actually more compelling," she said.

"As we grow, financial requirements are becoming greater, so that just makes more children for us to support so we need more assistance," Marshall said. For that reason, she envisions increasing the number of board members, realizing that nine are not enough to do the fundraising that’s needed going forward. NPT