A quick search of “millennials on nonprofit boards” yields more than 67,000 search results on Google. Most of the articles that turn up emphasize the value of millennial leadership, and include calls to engage and involve them in the social sector. But reality lags far behind interest and intentions. One large, national survey in 2012 showed that only 2 percent of board members were under 30, while 43 percent were between 50 and 64. Meanwhile, 70 percent of millennials spent at least an hour volunteering last year, and 84 percent made a charitable donation. More than other living generations, the millennial generation is focused on making a difference, being hands-on, and pursuing what it loves. Data like this makes it clear that millennials care about the state of the world and want to get involved—so why do so few boards have young members?
Some nonprofit leaders cite millennials’ relative lack of experience, depth of knowledge, maturity, and commitment as reasons for not seeking them out, but there is a strong case for inviting them to the table:
There are lots of them. Today, more than 1 of 3 Americans is a millennial, and last quarter they surpassed Baby Boomers in absolute numbers in the workforce. Their influence in the social sector—and in planning its future—should be more representative of these numbers.
They have diverse skills and viewpoints. According to recent White House research, millennials are the most racially diverse generation and have a different industry distribution relative to past generations—with 33 percent concentrated in technology, telecoms, and electronics. They also bring different views on the role of business and society, particularly the blurring of lines between sectors; raised in the age of social enterprise, benefit corporations, and socially minded start-ups, millennials are well-poised to come up with creative and innovative solutions. A board will only be so strong as the cumulative effect of all of its members. Diversity is an end in itself, but it also ensures that an organization’s decisions reflect the needs and values of society.
They can increase reach. Having a millennial on your board opens access to their network of millennial friends and colleagues. If you are looking to engage the next generation in your organization, for both general awareness and financial support, having a social-media savvy, Gen Y liaison is the way to go.
They play a critical role in succession planning. Though data on the average age of nonprofit board members is hard to find, in the corporate realm, the average age of board members (now 68) and mandatory retirement age (now 72-75) have increased steadily since 2002. Bringing on younger board members to engage in the mission and future of the organization means they’ll be much better equipped to take over the reigns as other board members age out.
So how do you get millennials on your board?
Find them and ask. Having an explicit strategy for identifying, recruiting, and onboarding millennial board members is important. Finding them isn’t hard— most are already highly involved in the community and some may very well be already volunteering for your organization.
Start with junior boards. Many organizations now offer a “junior” or “associate” board as a way for millennials to “dip their toe” into board leadership. Organizations generally don’t give these types of boards governance oversight, but often allow them make some independent decisions on events and fundraising. Junior boards also often carry a lower annual commitment and feature social events prominently. Later, governing boards can actively recruit from within these junior boards.
Create engaging events and opportunities. Millennials are not fond of “rubber-chicken dinners”; they want the opportunity to be hands-on with the cause. Organizing events that allow current and prospective board members to hear from clients and truly experience the work makes it a much more rewarding experience.
Bring them on in pairs. Being the new person is not easy, and adding in a generational age gap can add to the uneasiness. Particularly for more traditional boards, it is very helpful for a millennial board member to have a peer at the table with them. The more comfortable they feel, the more likely they will be to share their opinions, ask questions, and—most importantly—stay the course.
It’s true that millennials are young and relatively new to their careers, but many at the older end of the generation are already partners at law firms, vice presidents at banks, and leading technology companies. They have a lot to offer, and by setting them up for success through mentoring and thoughtful onboarding, regularly asking them for help and feedback, and offering constructive feedback and encouragement, nonprofits can ensure that these relationships are mutually beneficial.
Ultimately, the role of the board is to govern and to represent the community at large—based on numbers alone, it’s critical that millennials play a role leading and governing social change, now and into the future.