Recruiting Young People to Nonprofit Boards

Recruiting Young People to Nonprofit Boards
Aneliese Castro (’23) and Kylie Choi (’23)

This quarter, our team had the opportunity to revamp the corporate governance documents and practices for a large San Francisco nonprofit. Along the way, the client told us of its interest in recruiting younger people to its board of directors. They asked us to research the issue and report to them on what we found.

That request made sense; according to BoardSource, a leading institution for research on nonprofit board practices, approximately 57 percent of nonprofit board members are age 50 or over—and only 17 percent are under the age of 40. Bringing younger people onto a board seems essential to carry forward institutional knowledge and to diversify the opinions, experiences, and skill sets represented in the board room.

Our initial research on the topic revealed seven strategies, listed below, that nonprofits might use to recruit younger directors.

  1. Look for new ways to build the board candidate pipeline.
    Often, potential candidates for a board are identified and recommended by those already on that board, which can limit the age groups of individuals considered for board candidacy. Nonprofits seeking younger candidates can reach out to young professionals organizations, ask younger staff members for recommendations, or even use networking sites like LinkedIn to identify individuals interested in board service.
  2. Provide mission-oriented, impact-driven work.
    Many individuals, but especially younger people, are attracted to organizations in which they can perceive real impact and feel that they are contributing to a meaningful cause. When recruiting younger individuals, Forbes Nonprofit Council suggests that boards adopt strategies such as leveraging social media channels and giving younger directors opportunities to work closely with the communities served by the organization. 
  3. Highlight the skills and opportunities that may attract younger candidates.
    Young professionals primarily seek opportunities that allow them to develop their skills (such as leadership or management), and are often too busy to take on significant time commitments. Nonprofit organizations should keep in mind the types of meaningful opportunities that will attract younger people and ensure that board involvement will not be prohibitively time-consuming for busy, working individuals.
  4. Welcome all forms of contributions—not just financial.
    Nonprofits may understandably fear that focusing on younger board candidates might harm their fundraising efforts, as older board members tend to have more and better established relationships with donors and other sources of funding. However, younger individuals have skills, opportunities, and connections to offer beyond mere fundraising ability. For instance, younger individuals can serve as connections to their personal and school networks, develop innovative fundraising ideas, and bring fresh skill sets to the table.
  5. Build in systems for accountability and camaraderie among board members.
    Board service may be just one commitment among many for young professionals. To keep younger board members engaged and involved with their work, nonprofits might consider strategies such as cohort onboarding models or “board buddy” mentorship programs. Such approaches will help foster connections and accountability among board members.
  6. Create non-board opportunities for involvement.
    To pique the interest of potential candidates, boards should consider offering or creating lower-commitment roles within the organization. For example, the National Council of Nonprofits recommends “cultivating” the interest of potential board candidates by asking them to first serve on committees or task forces, or as volunteers in non-board roles, to evaluate whether or not they would be a good fit for the organization.
  7. Don’t stop at recruitment.
    Finally, nonprofit boards should look beyond recruitment alone. Propel Nonprofits notes that nonprofits should invest as much into pre- and post-recruitment practices as they do for recruitment itself. For instance, new board members may feel more supported and welcome if an organization takes the time to ask for expectations and preferences, understands their motivations for board service, and responds accordingly with relevant opportunities and programming.

While we found these recommendations useful, we also considered alternative ideas that target the reasons why younger folks may hesitate to get involved. For instance, nonprofits might help demystify nonprofit board involvement by encouraging existing directors to take part in activities that engage with volunteers and communities, creating shadowing opportunities for potential future directors, and asking directors to serve as mentors in professional development groups.

Further, all of these strategies must be underpinned by a culture that embraces open-mindedness, honest communication, and diverse perspectives. A nonprofit considering how to embrace younger board members, or any board members from diverse backgrounds, should first take time to evaluate its organizational and board culture.

Over the course of this quarter, we learned about the variety of ways in which young people can take the first step toward working with a nonprofit. For instance, advisory committees, task forces, or volunteer teams typically are lower-commitment engagements that do not require board membership as a prerequisite to involvement, and are great places to begin learning about an organization and thinking about future board membership. Students and young professionals may also find that joining professional organizations and staying in contact with mentors and connections can lead to opportunities to engage with nonprofits.

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As young professionals ourselves, we were thrilled that the nonprofit sought to bring younger leaders onboard. We would highly encourage law students to consider getting involved in a local nonprofit and to learn more about board membership. Involvement with a nonprofit will help build leadership and management skills, make a meaningful impact in the community, and expand professional networks. And, as we’ve seen this quarter, the skills that lawyers (including new lawyers) bring to the table are really valued by these organizations and their leadership.