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Bridging Generational Gaps: New Insights for Empowering Young Professionals Boards

How can we best harness the talent of young people and train up the next generation of board leaders?
byNate HincheyonOctober 19, 2023

At Cause Strategy Partners, we have the privilege of working with social good organizations throughout the United States, representing a wide variety of mission areas, structures, and sizes. But despite these differences, we often get a common question from our nonprofit partners–how can we best harness the talent of young people and train up the next generation of board leaders?

That question inspired us to launch our newest initiative: BoardLead Young Professionals. Through this program, we connect young people working at the world’s leading corporations to opportunities for them to serve, learn, and grow on young professional boards. In preparation for this launch, we took a deep dive into how such boards are structured and how they might have an even greater impact on the important work of nonprofits.

The Gap in Expectations vs. Reality

Nonprofits that have young professionals boards (sometimes called ancillary boards) often look to those board members for support in planning social events, participating in fundraising activities, and generally raising awareness for the organization. And while these are important contributions, nonprofits that deploy their young professionals in such a way often report low engagement and high turnover.

To dig deeper into this issue, Cause Strategy Partners conducted a survey of dozens of nonprofits with established young professionals boards. Our survey found that:

  • More than half (54%) of respondents indicated that keeping young professionals committed and engaged in the long term was a significant challenge

  • Just 17% of respondents consider professional skills the most valuable asset of a prospective young professional board member

  • And while the majority of nonprofits did report inviting members of their young professionals board to join their governing board, only about a quarter (26%) of those organizations provide any kind of training or mentorship that helps prepare young people to make this transition

As we conducted this nonprofit survey, we also organized a series of focus groups with early-career employees at Fortune 500 companies. Two themes emerged from these discussions. First, young people are eager to bring their whole selves to bear on issues they care about (including their burgeoning professional expertise). And second, they see these boards not just as an opportunity to serve, but also as a chance to grow and develop during a critical juncture in their careers.

The story is clear: young professionals often disengage with board service because they see it as a dead end.

A Model for Increased Engagement

As a result of our conversations and survey, Cause Strategy Partners can articulate two key recommendations to our nonprofit partners with young professionals boards.

1. Create intentional ways for young people to apply their unique skills to your work, particularly long-term planning and initiatives.

For example, in our survey, only 26% of nonprofits asked their young professional board members for guidance on issues related to technology and social trends. These are areas in which young people can bring an invaluable and often more informed perspective to your work–especially since BoardSource has found that 69% of current nonprofit governing board members are over the age of 45 (Source: Leading With Intent: 2021 Boardsource Index Of Nonprofit Board Practices)

Similarly, our survey found that less than 20% of nonprofits engage their young professionals boards in any part of their strategic planning process. As you consider the future of your organization 5, 10, and 20 years down the line, you can only benefit from incorporating the voices and earning the buy-in of those individuals who may one day be directing the implementation of that strategic plan.

2. Foster opportunities for young professional board members to engage directly with (and learn from) your governing board members.

Joining a young professionals board can be a gateway to a lifetime of nonprofit board service, but many young people–especially those working in the corporate sector–may not have a deep understanding of how the social good sector operates. Our nonprofit partners that see the most success in engaging their young professionals often employ scaffolded learning to guide these individuals on their board service journey. Scaffolded learning may include:

  • Pairing each new young professionals board member with a governing board mentor and encouraging regular, structured meetings.

  • Inviting young professionals to serve as non-voting members on governing committees or as collaborators on working groups related to strategic planning or executive search.

  • Asking governing board members to design and lead trainings on topics like financial oversight and other fiduciary responsibilities.

In short, the key to engagement is fully leveraging the potential contributions of young professionals now, while also building a pipeline to future leadership opportunities.

Our Work Bridging the Gap

BoardLead Young Professionals aims to help nonprofits identify prospective young professional board members who not only are passionate about their mission but also bring the exact kind of professional skills and insights needed to have an even greater impact on the communities and populations they serve. And just like in our signature BoardLead program, all of our young professionals will receive the foundational training and ongoing support that will enable them to hit the ground running and serve as effective advocates, fundraisers, and future leaders.

Additionally, through the BoardLead Nonprofit Network, we plan to expand our offering of resources and guidance on a variety of topics related to young professional boards, including how to get one started.

If you’re interested in learning more about participating in BoardLead Young Professionals, or if you want to share your insights and ideas about young professionals boards with us, please reach out! We’re truly excited by the opportunity to serve our nonprofits even better.

Sabina Razak and Julia Riley contributed to the data collection and analysis highlighted in this post.

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