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How Can Young Professionals “Break In” to Board Participation?

ISSUE 23 • April 2024

Kathleen Hill and friends
Kathleen Hill (third from right) with fellow steering committee members

By Kathleen Hill

This post is part of a series examining more youth leadership in the arts.

I feel like I have been “leading” for as long as I can remember. 

Whether it was acting on stage in title roles for theater productions like “Bye Bye Birdie” in elementary school or “Anything Goes” in high school, serving as a peer-elected leader in high school or college for honors societies or performing arts organizations, or organizing excursions and trips for my family and friends, I have been in “the room where it happens.”

I did not step into these roles because I needed to be in charge. I took the responsibilities on because I cared greatly about the communities in which I was involved, the activities themselves, and I felt like I was well-suited for the positions. To this day, I love being able to bring people together to build a structure that is greater than the sum of its parts. (Bonus: I make a tight spreadsheet which is critical to organizing any group of volunteers.)

After college, things shifted; the leadership opportunities that were built into my routines and activities seemed to vanish. Over the last few years, I’ve felt like my “knack” for leadership isn’t quite enough to be in “the room” anymore. Sometimes, I don’t even seem to know where “the room” is. 

Whether it is because of a lack of money, experience, networks, influence, or—it is worth repeating ten times over—money, life after college feels a bit like an opportunity desert. 

The one exception seems to be a space in which I am surrounded by people my age. After graduating from college, my friends were curious enough about a graduation tradition that they not only decided to rebuild the organization responsible for it, but to expand it. Currently, I serve as a member of the steering committee for the group; all steering committee members are between 23 and 31 years old. 

Is the only space where young professionals’ ideas count one that they build themselves? 

I hope not. 

What would it take to build something better for young professionals–not just for their leadership aspirations–but perhaps for the organizations themselves?

Let’s think about it.

What can young professionals give? 

  • More often than not, the emphasis on dollars shapes the way organizations assess potential board members. 
  • People at the start of their careers may not have the dollars that people have at the end of their careers, but they do have time, energy, and insight that could not only complement but revitalize the strengths of current board members. Finding meaningful ways to activate that is the key to making their presence valuable. 
  • For example, while people at the start of their careers may not have the networks or connections to buy a table at a gala, their networks may be able to fill a bar or restaurant for a benefit night, building bridges to the elusive younger demographic or activating corporate support. 

What decision-making power should young professionals have? 

  • Typically, board positions for young professionals and youth are not connected to governance or fiduciary responsibilities because more senior people feel that young people are “not ready.”
  • They are often relegated or siloed to generation-specific programming. (Think of “Junior Boards” that program quarterly happy hours for people in their 30s.)
  • However, young professionals often have cutting-edge insights and skills as they navigate mid-career milestones and are elevated to management positions.
  • Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, it is the responsibility of nonprofit organizations to mentor younger generations to inspire robust leadership practices in the future. 
Kathleen Hill and friends
Kathleen Hill (second from right) with fellow steering committee members

How do you balance leadership opportunities with personal milestones? 

  • In their 20s and 30s, young professionals are often actively building many lifelong pathways for themselves and perhaps even the people around them.
  • For young professionals with families or partners:
    • Are young professionals not present on boards because they are catering to the interests of a growing, young family rather than pursuing independent interests? 
    • If young professionals are volunteering, are their activities more likely to be tied to something that aligns with their overall household? 
    • Perhaps the thought is that they will have more time once children are older and more independent, but often, this is too late for organizations to recruit and build loyalty from this group. 
    • If anything, this loyalty to family programming should be activated as a vehicle for bringing younger people into the governance mix early. 
  • For young professionals eager to advance their education or careers, movement across cities and states is a reality of life. Could opportunities exist for high-impact, short-term positions that offer fresh insights and perspectives? 
  • For young professionals hoping to make a large investment like buying a car or a home, are there alternate strategies to engage in “pay to play” spaces like corporate donations, volunteer hours, or pro bono expertise? 

Do different opportunities exist depending on the organization type? Depending on the sector?

  • Larger organizations are less likely to allow young people to enter spaces where important decisions are made. 
  • However, for smaller organizations whose programming is more grassroots or community-oriented, young professionals may find themselves carrying out core governance activities like building the budget.
  • If young professionals can be trusted with these opportunities in smaller spaces, they can be empowered to inform and support similar opportunities in larger organizations. With considered mentorship, committee roles for young people may be the start of the pathway toward committee leadership, if not board leadership, down the line. 

Moving forward

Young professionals are excited for opportunities to further develop their skills as leaders and support causes they care about. The more time they can spend honing those skills today, the better leaders they can be for communities and organizations in the future. 

As we look to successful models of organizations that have harnessed the skills of young leaders, consider Community MusicWorks and New Haven Symphony Orchestra featured in other posts in this issue.

This is post is part of our On Our Minds newsletter. Previous issues of On Our Minds focused on equity in the arts. You can read them here:

Arts Outcomes Worthy of Pursuit – Joanna Borowski and Samuel McDonald of the New Jersey Symphony’s Education and Community Engagement Department share outcomes they considered worthy of research for their Training Ensemble. 

Access to Evaluation Services – Finally, our colleague and collaborator Allison Russo shares how close to 100 arts education organizations in Newark are working together to gain access to quality evaluation services.