A guide to recruiting young directors
Younger directors, if properly recruited, mentored and supported, can provide diversity and innovation.
David White recommends
considering younger directors
There is a high demand for quality directors in non-profit organisations. Australia has 59,000 non-profits of significant scale. Averaging eight directors per non-profit, the sector needs around 472,000 directors. Individually, these directors make major decisions about the direction and viability of non-profits, and are tasked with significant strategic decisions to deal with major societal challenges in, for example, the education or health area. In addition, they have to take responsibility for substantial financial risk.
… 70% report difficulty in finding qualified directors…
However, many non-profits struggle to find and retain quality directors.
It can be highly rewarding to sit on the board of a non-profit. It provides the opportunity to apply knowledge and experience to significant social challenges across diverse areas. Despite this, a recent study of over 5,000 non-profit organisations in the US revealed that 70% report difficulty in finding qualified directors and 20% report that it is very difficult. Yet this demand has not led to younger people being appointed: only 7% of directors in the US are under the age of 36.
Given the difficulties in finding committed, non-profit directors, can younger people make up the shortfall?
Unique challenges of non-profit boards
Serving on a non-profit board is a big responsibility: directors don’t get paid, but are required to put in long hours and frequently have to act on behalf of management.
… lean on the skill and experience of their directors to provide direction for the organisation over and above a corporate director’s role.
Non-profit boards face challenges that are uncommon in the corporate sector. Many organisations do not have clarity on their objectives, their important stakeholders, or ways to determine effectiveness. This is further compounded by a frequent absence of data on performance, need, competitors and funding decisions. On top of this, many organisations lack the resources and skills to implement their strategic directions.
These challenges often lead non-profits to lean on the skill and experience of their directors to provide direction for the organisation over and above a corporate director’s role.
Requirements for non-profit directors
Five essential requirements for a non-profit organisation director are:
- Governance knowledge: An understanding of governance duties and the director role, or a willingness to acquire it
- Relevant background: Skills, knowledge and experience relevant to the current needs of the board
- Availability: The time to commit to the director role before, during and after board meetings
- Networks: Willingness to share professional and personal networks for the benefit of the organisation
- Buy-in: Commitment to the organisation’s cause, values and culture.
Can younger people meet these requirements?
Clearly younger people can fulfil these five requirements and many bring additional benefits through unique skills and perspectives which may complement existing board members’ experience.
1. Governance knowledge
Younger people might not have as much knowledge on governance matters as someone more experienced, however, they are adaptive to change and have the potential to come up to speed quickly.
Sometimes it’s harder to mentor the more mature director…
There may also be a greater capacity and willingness to be trained and mentored. Paul Robertson, Chair of Social Ventures Australia (SVA), suggests that younger people may be more receptive to instruction than those who are more experienced: “Sometimes it’s harder to mentor the more mature director whereas the younger person coming on actually wants, and sometimes demands, mentoring.”
2. Relevant background
Directors should fulfil the organisation’s needs regardless of age. Younger people may have skills and experiences which are particularly relevant to an organisation. Especially in areas which are in flux, including technological or communication innovations, analysis of markets, fundraising approaches and changes in culture.
Sebastian Robertson, CEO of Batyr, says that regardless of whether the person is young or old, what matters is that their skills and experience are applied in a way that is “practical and useful for the community they serve”.
Board duties can be very time consuming. The responsibilities of a director may take up to 20 days per year and potentially double that for the role of chair.
… perhaps younger directors commit more time to preparing and being thoroughly inducted to get across their sector…
Younger people – if they haven’t yet had their own families – generally have fewer commitments and family responsibilities and thus are more able to devote their time. Quality directors are in high demand and often serve on multiple boards. A board full of highly experienced and impeccably well connected business people who do not have the time to regularly attend or participate in board meetings does not assist a non-profit in pursuing its strategy.
Carole Renouf, CEO,
National Breast Cancer
The culture of a board, rather than age or experience, dictates whether members turn up to meetings fully engaged and prepared. Carole Renouf, CEO of the National Breast Cancer Foundation, says a committed board can prevent wasted time “as 25% of meetings can be lost just getting everyone on the same page”. Renouf wonders “if perhaps younger directors commit more time to preparing and being thoroughly inducted to get across their sector – which in the end saves time for everyone.”
Younger people have access to different networks, possibly extensive ones. A connection through social media is by no means a less valuable connection than a work connection. The networks of younger people may reflect common interests better than traditional corporate networks, and similarly may have increased capacity to take on work.
Commitment to a cause is clearly independent of age and far more about the individual and their interests, values, allegiances and life experience.
Additional benefits that younger people offer
There can be additional benefits to having younger directors on boards including diversity, the different skills they bring and that it nurtures talent in the for-purpose sector.
Just like any other group who bring different viewpoints, younger people can help boards perform better. Diversity encourages different perspectives which help boards overcome cultural blind spots. Diversity is valuable to a board. It encourages creative problem solving, healthy conflict and different insights about populations and cultures.
There’s an unexpected or inadvertent advantage to including young people on your board…
CEO of Pathways Early
Sylvana Mahmic, CEO of Pathways Early Childhood Intervention, agrees that having younger people on the board is a good way to encourage diversity. She says “There’s an unexpected or inadvertent advantage to including young people on your board and that is to promote diversity a little bit beyond age and sex… Non-profit organisations represent all of Australian society.”
Similarly Jan Owen AM, the CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians, says the diversity younger people bring helps with the organisation’s strategic direction. “We have young people on the board as it adds enormous value to our thinking and to our strategy because we are about young people.”
Some non-profit organisations that target young people have constitutional mandates for younger people to sit on their boards to ensure they utilise their experience and expertise in information technology, online communication, social media and engagement of young people.
They also bring fresh perspectives about generating income streams beyond fundraising…
Louise Walsh, CEO of
This expertise in technology and social media may also mean they have access to, or can easily build up, extensive networks that could assist non-profit organisations in fundraising and raising profile. Philanthropy Australia has placed over 20 emerging leaders on boards since the launch of its New Generation of Giving program.
Louise Walsh, Philanthropy Australia’s CEO, has found that young board members bring fresh attitudes to fundraising and sustainability: “If one of our ‘new gen-ers’ believes in the organisation’s mission, governance and effectiveness, they are passionate about bringing their peers, friends and colleagues into the fold. They also bring fresh perspectives about generating income streams beyond fundraising, for example cross-subsidisation opportunities.”
Nurturing talent in non-profit organisations
Connecting with the specific skills and networks that younger people have increases the potential for collaboration within the sector.
In contrast, younger people potentially have decades of future governance ahead.
of Education at SVA
Suzie Riddell, Executive Director of Education at SVA, and on the boards of YWCA NSW and Holdsworth Community, challenges non-profits to think about “cross-pollination in the sector, so that we don’t only rely on people in the corporate sector, but start to recognise that some of the talent lies in this sector and we could be nurturing that talent.”
There is potential for young people to have long-term relationships with the organisation. Often the experience of retired business people is sought for board membership. Despite the wisdom and experience of older directors, the currency of their business knowledge can fade and their tenure is likely to be shorter. In contrast, younger people potentially have decades of future governance ahead. Hence, investment in training and mentoring younger people can pay big dividends for an organisation and the non-profit sector more broadly.
Avoid tokenism and those keen to bolster CVs
Nonetheless, it is important to remember that any board candidate must be vetted for appropriateness.
Non-profit boards should not be viewed as a training ground to learn skills and garner experience to aid development as executives.
Any director must fulfil the five requirements. Sometimes non-profit organisations, keen to reap some of the additional benefits that younger directors offer, can take on people who do not meet these essential requirements.
Non-profit boards should not be viewed as a training ground to learn skills and garner experience to aid development as executives. Whilst this may be an incidental goal for younger people’s involvement, a director needs to be passionate about the organisation and have the skill set to learn and contribute.
Just because an organisation serves young people does not necessarily mean the board should be full of younger people. This kind of tokenism needs to be avoided.
Geoff Lovell, Chair of Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME), says the fact that his organisation serves young people has not persuaded them to inundate the board with younger people. “The business of the organisation is young people, but our board is constituted largely by people with many years of experience and it works very effectively.”
… there are “ways of bringing people in with all sorts of skills and backgrounds… where people aren’t full board members”.
There are other avenues for organisations to gain benefits of younger people which are often more appropriate than having them on the board.
The Starlight Foundation has established advisory boards to bring younger people into decision-making without having governance responsibility.
Similarly, Robert Milliner, Chair of the Foundation for Young Australians, suggests that there are “ways of bringing people in with all sorts of skills and backgrounds to benefit an organisation, whether through advisory boards, or other mechanisms, where people aren’t full board members”.
Requirements for appointing a younger director
Here are three principles to guide whether a non-profit organisation should take on younger, inexperienced directors.
1. Good fit with the vision of the organisation
Good boards rarely happen by accident. A well-constructed board needs more than just people with wide experiences. An organisation needs clarity on why anyone is being appointed to the board. Each director must meet the five requirements and bring the skills, experience and networks needed for the specific organisation.
They must also display a willingness to undertake any necessary training to be able to fulfil any board duties.
There needs to be an explicit reason for appointing a director and reasons why the board is a suitable vehicle for their involvement. One of these reasons may be the additional benefits that younger people can bring.
Owen sees younger people’s roles as being very specific and bringing enormous value. “You want to get an alignment between board, team, mission and strategy.”
2. The capacity to do the job
A board candidate must demonstrate sufficient intellectual capacity and emotional intelligence and show the potential to develop into an effective director. They must also display a willingness to undertake any necessary training to be able to fulfil any board duties.
3. Training and mentoring
The board culture should allow and encourage difference and have tolerance for people who are learning on the job. Practically, that means the organisation must have a supportive chair and current directors who have the knowledge, patience and willingness to support and mentor less experienced members.
I see it as part of my role, as the Chair, to mentor this person.
When AIME took on a younger director, she was enrolled in a course with the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Even so, the board still viewed ongoing mentoring as essential. Lovell, says “I see it as part of my role, as the Chair, to mentor this person.”
Young people can become effective directors. Non-profit organisations just need to make sure that younger candidates are appropriately recruited and provided with the training and support to enable them to fulfil their responsibilities.
The article is based on ideas expressed at the SVA Quarterly breakfast debate hosted by SVA Consulting and Macquarie on the topic: Should young people sit on non-profit boards? March 2013.