For Youth on Your Board, Reservations Suggested

Tim Burke
July 1, 1996

Andre Olton lays it on the line. "I'm a strong advocate of using young people as service providers. But my experience with youth on boards of directors is not good."

Olton directs Walker's Point Youth and Family Center in Milwaukee and is probably fairly typical of many youth workers when it comes to youth participation in management. They are keen to apply the energies of youth but believe that forcing the pace of their involvement with what can be boring stuff is inappropriate.

Indeed, a May 1994 survey of 1,200 nonprofits by the Center for Non-profit Boards failed to turn up any board members under the age of 21.

But there are those who feel that, done correctly, not only do youth gain leadership skills and experience from sitting on boards, but boards benefit from their creative thinking, direct questions, and healthy lack of reverence for tradition.

Anne Hoover, director of Community Partnerships with Youth (CPY) here in Fort Wayne, sees a growing ambition among young people that reminds her of the women's movement. "Maybe what's happening is what happened to women. "They looked around and said ‘Wait a minute. I'm a part of this country. I should have a say in how it is run."

Paul Schmitz, at 25 the founder and chief executive of the Milwaukee office of Public Allies, is scathing in his criticisms of the current ineffectiveness of youth serving private agencies which he blames partly on their failure to get youth representation on boards.

"I think it's because projects don't really involve the people who need to be there.

"Young people are willing to take greater risks, and it can be scary to give them that power. But why worry about the risks when we don't take them and nothing happens?" he asks.

"Boards have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure quality — [to ensure] that money is being used correctly — and I have a feeling that a lot don't do that. When something goes wrong, they all look around for someone to point the finger at. Young people are much more likely to say 'Why are we doing this? We're getting $250,000 for what? My friends don't wanna know this [crap]!'"

Teaching the Ropes

With funding from the Lilly Endowment, Community Partnerships with Youth has produced two extensive training packages intended to prepare young people for board membership. Lilly, the nation's fourth largest philanthropic fund, has been increasingly concerned about the lack of committed volunteers coming forward to sit on the boards of the non-profit organizations it finances.

The key message from CPY is that, as Andre Olton and others have learned, young people cannot be plopped on a board and expected to perform. So the first of the training packages concentrates on the notion of "trusteeship;" the why of being a board member rather than how, Youth as Trustees thus offers the ethical basts for assuming and exercising responsibility. It then helps participants envision their community's future and how to match up with organizations that share that vision.

Anne Hoover concedes boards can be boring and dysfunctional. Hence, serving on a board because it fits one's own priorities — not because of someone else's idea — is an important premise.

A second training package, Youth in Governance, addresses practical training skills: how boards operate, rules of meetings, how motions are tabled, fundraising, public relations and so on.

"It's really a very traditional form of board training," says Hoover. "But I believe we do young people no favors if we don't expose them to the way things are done. Some of these things are going to have to change and these kids are going to change them, but for now they need to know the routine."

Youth-Friendly Ground rules

Training young people is only part of a complicated equation for creating successful governance. If an organization doesn't really want to empower young people, youth board members will always be cosmetic. "Just because a person serves on committees or attends meetings does not mean that he or she influences decision making," says Barry Checkoway of the University of Michigan in a recent paper on involving young people in neighborhood development.

Boards need to change if youth involvement is to become widespread. "I've not found boards to be a very empowering experience for youth," says skeptic Andre Olton. "They talk about budgets and fiscal accountability. It's boring; even I find them boring. If a teen came to me saying,’ I’d really like to be on the board,' I wouldn't say no. But often it's tokenism. It's to say we're doing something.' It can turn out to be the waste of a valuable resource."

Those who promote youth governance agree that done badly it is a waste of everyone's time. To address this problem, 40 young activists and advocates met in May of this year at the Johnson Foundation's Wingspread center in Racine, Wisconsin, at an event designed precisely to develop policy and practice leading to successful youth membership on boards.

The conference came up with ground rules for a youth-friendly board, which more or less followed the "fourteen points" developed not by Woodrow Wilson but by Youth on Board, a Massachusetts-based group which supports young board members. Many of these points suggest significant changes in current practice as well as resource allocation. Thus. Youth on Board's first priority is to check motivation and ensure commitment to the notion of youth as decisionmakers.

Anne Hoover agrees that getting adults ready is crucial to the process. While CPY has done training in governance for more than 30 youth organizations, her organization has turned down others on the grounds that they did not appear to be conducting the training for the right reasons.

"If I have a concern about promoting youth governance, it's that it has to be a positive experience for both sides. There has to be training for both sides so young people don't just sit there."

Beware the ‘Star Syndrome’

Youth involvement should be institutionalized through written policies clarifying ground rules, job descriptions, voting rights and procedural measures. This should imply a thorough recruitment process, with interviews and letters of appointment, feeding into an orientation and training program that applies to adults as well as young people. Exit interviews for those leaving the board should also be standard.

Ongoing support to help youth members prepare and evaluate meetings is seen as a key to retention. "Board buddies," mentors and local and regional networks of young board members are all recommended.

One common problem: the "star syndrome" whereby effective individuals are called on to serve repeatedly. Not only can this defeat the objective of broadening board representation, but it can leave everyone high and dry when the star moves on or burns out. Getting recruitment and support systems in place can help ensure a supply of diverse young people.

Many in the youth governance movement believe it is important wherever possible to give young people full voting rights and a chance to take officer posts. However, state laws vary, some of which might place legal restrictions on the role of minors. Youth on Board has prepared guidance for organizations In Massachusetts and given grey areas in the law — it suggests taking legal precautions such as not allowing minors to sign agreements and adopting procedures prohibiting them from casting votes on certain matters.

A steering committee has been formed out of the Wingspread conference to advance the work of promoting youth governance. Contact Lizzy Flannagan at Youth on Board, 58 Day Street, Third Floor, Somerville, MA 02144. 617/623-9900.


Youth Governance: 14 Points to Involving Young People Successfully on Boards of Directors

Available from Youth on Board

58 Day Street, Third Floor

Somerville, MA02144


Youth as Trustees and Youth in Governance

Both priced $125

Available from Community Partnerships with Youth Inc.

2000 North Wells Street

Fort Wayne, IN


Burke, Tim. "For Youth on Your Board, Reservations Suggested."Youth Today, July/August 1996, p. 32-33.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.