Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. – Robert F. Kennedy
According to a 2015 national survey of nonprofit boards conducted byBoardSource, board chairs across the country assign, on average, a C+ to their board’s overall composition. Perhaps more concerning, just 20% of nonprofit chief executives indicate they have the right board members in place to accomplish mission. The majority of chief executives (58%) indicate that it is difficult to find new board members.
The picture seems bleak, doesn’t it? Nonprofits lack the governing boards they need to accomplish mission while, at the same time, nonprofit leaders feel stymied in their effort to recruit talented, fresh, energized new board members.
Despite facing these very real challenges in board development, the nonprofit sector is overlooking an important pool of talent: namely, earlier-career professionals. BoardSource found that 84% of elected board members sitting in boardrooms across the country are over the age of 40, as are 91% of nonprofit CEOs. Essentially, a generation of talented professionals is currently sitting on the governance sidelines, left warming the bench.
What a mistake. Earlier-career professionals offer relevant expertise in skill areas of importance to any 501(c)(3) organization including technology, finance, strategy, marketing, communications, and human resources. They tend to enjoy large networks of colleagues and friends eager to make a difference and engage in their community. Many of these professionals work for top companies in our communities that support board service through volunteer time out of the office, employee matching gifts, training opportunities, and dollars-for-doers programs. They have the ability to infuse energy, enthusiasm and new points of view into the board room, perhaps even shifting board culture over time, strengthening a governing body’s overall level of engagement.
But are they good investments? Given the amount of time it takes to find, recruit, vet, nominate, elect and onboard a new board member, will positive returns flow from an earlier-career professional? Will they be interested in serving for the right reasons? Or will their actions prove consistent with the label too easily assigned to Millennials: The Me Generation?
Our firm, Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, recently collaborated withThe Heckscher Foundation for Children and three top companies based in New York City to recruit, place, train and support next generation board members for 16 children and youth serving nonprofit boards. What we learned through this program, called BoardLead, was heartening and reinforced what we believed going in: earlier-career professionals are a tremendous — though largely untapped — source of talent for nonprofit boards.
Some context: We presented the opportunity to 112 professionals in their 20s and 30s at our three collaborating companies in June and July of 2015. After learning what nonprofit board service entails — the commitment, fiduciary duties, expectations, key roles and the like — 66 candidates applied for a seat on a board. The group was relatively diverse: 67% of applicants were female; 23% African American, 12% Asian, and 5% Hispanic or Latino. Almost all were under the age of 40. Through our comprehensive application process, we gathered a great deal of information about the personal backgrounds and interests of these candidates, providing a compelling glimpse into the profile of a next generation board member.
They are Involvement-Seekers, Not Resume-Builders
When asked to identify their top motivations for wanting to serve, BoardLead candidates overwhelming pointed to a desire to roll up their sleeves and get involved.
- Make a positive impact on the community (74% of respondents)
- Work on an issue I care about (73%)
- Use my skills in a different operating environment (52%)
Motivations that are more self-focused in nature were much less important to our earlier-career candidates:
- Build my professional network (23%)
- Collaborate with community leaders (18%)
- Add a leadership experience to my resume (11%)
They are Ready to Invest Time, But Meeting Structure Matters
Because they are Involvement-Seekers, earlier-career professionals aren’t interested in board service solely to attend 4 or 6 meetings a year. Rather, they want to get to work. They want to make an impact. In fact, 74% of our board candidates indicate that they are prepared to dedicate 6 0r more hours per month to their organization.
How are you engaging your board members between meetings? Are you giving them opportunities outside of the boardroom to make an impact utilizing their core strengths?
Of course, despite their interest in a more well-rounded approach to governance, as we preach to all of our board candidates, presence matters. A highly-engaged board member must prepare for, attend and participate in all board meetings. Yet, for this age group more than most, the day of the week and the time of the meeting is an important consideration. We discovered that 98% of our earlier-career professionals can attend board meetings on weekday evenings, but just 42% are able to attend during work hours. This makes sense. At an earlier stage in one’s career, a professional simply has less flexibility to arrive late or leave early to meet other personal and professional commitments.
Have you structured board service in ways that will work for the full range of professionals in your community?
They Stand Prepared to Both Give and Get
Though their pockets may not be as deep as more senior members of the board, earlier-career professionals are prepared to make annual contributions to support the organization. Of the candidates we worked with this year through BoardLead, 86% plan to give $1000 or more as an annual contribution, half will give $2500, and an impressive one-third will give $5000 or more.
They also stand ready to commit to a give/get expectation. Fully 97% indicated they would participate in their organization’s fundraising effort and 44% indicated they would expect to raise at least $5000 each year from their network.
NextGen Board Members “Got Skills”
Self-aware that their highest and greatest use to a nonprofit will not rest in making $25,000 or $50,000 annual contributions, earlier-career professionals are eager to leverage their core skill set from a seat on the board. Because they are Involvement-Seekers, they see for themselves a key role in engaging their talents as much as their treasure, network and time.
Consider the vast array of skills that are flowing into nonprofits through the next generation board members we are placing from just three companies in NYC: finance and financial management, strategy and strategy management, marketing, IT, start-up experience, executive management, human resources, communications and PR, legal, real estate, accounting, event planning and the like. The list goes on and on.
In my next post, I’ll share specifics about what we are doing to successfully recruit and engage earlier-career professionals for nonprofit boards. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you’ve discovered through your experiences. Join the conversation by commenting below.
Robert B. Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, a consulting social enterprise that partners with foundations, corporations and social good organizations to help nonprofits achieve their missions fueled by great leadership, great strategy and, most importantly, great results. Visit us at www.causestrategypartners.com.