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Recruiting Young Board Members: Why Should it Matter?

ISSUE 23 • April 2024

Young people smiling

By Dr. Thomas Wolf

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

Some years ago, the same year I turned sixty, I was scheduled to run a board retreat. As I often do in preparing for such sessions, I asked the executive director to give me a pre-retreat run-down on the cast of characters. With trustee after trustee, resumés and accomplishments were impressive. Nor was I disappointed when I asked about gender and ethnic balance or how much money board members were collectively contributing to the organization. It seemed like a dream-come-true board.

The next day, I entered the board room and was astonished. Clearly, I, at sixty, and the executive director, in her mid-forties, were the youngest people in the room. Later, after the retreat, I learned that the average age of board members was close to seventy.

How important is it to have young people on a board? And why should it matter? The organization I was consulting with was healthy, it had a strong program led by a relatively youthful staff, and its board members had been recruited only after proving themselves on other boards and having served on one or more of the organization’s committees. Board members were scrupulous in evaluating and giving feedback to the executive director every year, and each understood their giving responsibilities. While there was no minimum giving level, it was agreed that the trustees were to make this particular organization among their top three philanthropic priorities. Strategic planning occurred regularly every five years. When I asked the executive director about attendance at the four board meetings every year, she said it was excellent, and most of the trustees also devoted extra time to serve on a board committee.

Yet, despite what appeared ideal in terms of the characteristics of this board’s membership, composition, and commitment, one of the top priorities to emerge from the strategic planning process was the recruitment of younger trustees. On the one hand, age provided a clear case of vulnerability. But the arguments in favor of young board members went considerably beyond advanced age per se. As one trustee put it:

“Our organization’s constituents are young, yet the board lacks the perspective of those we serve. We know how to tap our friends for money, but our donors will not be around in a few years. Who will tap the next generation? And do we really understand how to reach our future constituents and donors? We are not exactly social media types.”

Still, some on the board were not convinced that this new direction was necessary. Said one:

“We are a board of respected community leaders. People recognize our names and realize we represent a blue-chip organization. We have young staff members who bring us their vision of programming that will serve the community and our younger constituents. Our job is to maintain fiduciary oversight and to bring in the necessary contributed dollars, and we have a superb track record of doing both. Young people are busy, especially the leaders we would recruit. Do we really want to dilute the strength we have demonstrated?”

Looking at the experience of organizations that have successfully brought young people into the governance structure, it is clear that the process must be done carefully and with sensitivity. Fortunately, we can draw on actual case histories and learn from those involved elsewhere 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.