Give Youth a Seat at the Board and a Space for their Voices

teen  board at training

NZ Teen Board Members in Training

At a recent conference, I met one of the Directors of Youth on Board who asked me if we have youth on our board at Neutral Zone.  I proudly shared that 13 out of our 29 current board members are teens.  I detected a slight surprise.   Few organizations involve youth at the highest levels of governance and those that do rarely have such a critical mass.    Two of the guiding components of our Youth-Driven Spaces framework are:  1) an organization’s laws explicitly outline youth decision making role in governance of the organization; and 2) a critical mass of youth serve on organization’s Board of Directors.

But even with our strong commitment to youth voice on the Board, we can do better – and we are continually trying.  About seven years ago one of our social work interns had a class assignment to attend a nonprofit board meeting.   After the meeting she came up to me and reported something very interesting.  Even though our Board representation is nearly half teen members (and at many meetings the teen attendance is better than the adults!) they represented only about one-third of the comments and less than 25% of the questions.  I never realized that teen participation was so significantly less than the adults until Xan pointed it out.

Going forward we made some changes to our Board meeting structures and processes.  At nearly every one of our meetings we do an active exercise, usually in small groups, to ensure that everyone participates and contributes during each gathering.  These exercises typically involve some kind of active brainstorming, planning or reflection where board members do work on fundraising, strategic planning or community outreach.    Additionally, I’ve become more intentional about noticing if teens are not contributing to the Board discussion and explicitly ask “is there a teen board member who wants to weigh in or ask a question.”

Peter Schork quote

Earlier this year, as we started our Board meetings we realized something else.  Our Board Chair, a position always held by an adult, leads our monthly meeting.  We wondered, why aren’t we sharing this leadership role with teens?  Nearly every one of our weekly programs is facilitated and led by teens, why not Board meetings?    Being a learning organization, we decided to make a change.  This past week we had one of our liveliest and most interesting meetings.  Ali, a high school senior chaired
the meeting – adroitly moving things along and competently using Robert’s Rules to conduct business.    Frances, a high school junior, gave the finance report and co-led an active SWOT analysis that would influence the Finance Committee’s budgeting process.

Teen participation at these higher order levels takes work, commitment and training.  Here are a few of the important principles that we believe contribute to our success:

  • Training of teen cabinet – Two to three times a year we engage our board teens in intensive professional development. The topics we cover include: roles of a nonprofit board member, fundraising, community engagement, and (of course) finances.
  • Keep meetings active – As mentioned earlier, we keep our meetings active and collaborative. This can take your “bored” meetings to ”engaging board” meetings where everyone participates and has fun.  Adult learning research demonstrates that adults engage better in an active setting.
  • Give youth leadership roles at meetings – As mentioned above, explicitly constructing meaningful roles for youth to present and lead parts of the meeting, boosts their engagement and development. This requires preparation, however.  Going over the meeting agenda, discussing protocols, and reviewing issues that might arise are important to supporting teens to successfully lead a meeting.
  • Adult support for teen board participation – When we vet new adults to our Board we are very clear that Neutral Zone is a youth-driven organization, all the way to the very top – including the board. We often times have teen board members meet prospective adult members to help drive home that point.  We ask from the get go that adults commit to serving with teens as colleagues.  If that is something they are not comfortable with, than we let them know that the Neutral Zone board is not a good fit.

There are many benefits to having youth on a non profit board.  First it provides them valuable competencies and experiences, contributing to their development of 21st century skills and civic engagement.  Second, it provides youth an amazing opportunity to build their social capital.  Serving with bankers, lawyers, architects, artistic directors, and college faculty exposes them to a wide range of people and perspectives that they can (and should) tap just like other community volunteers who serve on boards.  Third having youth on board strengthens the organization.  When we involve the very people who the organization serves and include their perspectives on important decisions our mission and programs are strengthened.   As Peter Schork, the President of the State Bank of Ann Arbor said about the Corner Health Board in Ypsilanti (which has 4 teens serving):  “ we are a better and more thoughtful board because we realized that having  youth board members gives us a better perspective on our clients’ needs who are also youth.”

And finally, having youth on the board is good for adults.    Adults don’t get enough opportunities to see how amazing young people are and how many have a plethora of brilliant ideas, good values, and strong work ethic.   It also make us a little more hip to hang out with youth and experience a little of their culture – something many adults can use more of.

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