Want Fresh Ideas? Put a Kid on Your Board of Directors
Teenagers are irresponsible. They are lazy and entitled and never look up from their smart devices. Wait, what about Jack Andraka, who identified an early detection mechanism for pancreatic cancer… while he was in high school? He not only invented it, he pitched the idea to 200 research professors to test it and earned workspace in a scientific lab. Check out his TED Talk here.
Then there is Rupali Dhumne, who founded the nonprofit Project CODEt when she was 16 years old.
Project CODEt’s mission is to:
- Find opportunities for early exposure to computer science, as the earliest class offered is in high school.
- Teach the various skills surrounding the subject in a manner that appeals to younger students, while teaching them about its day-to-day applications.
- Diminish the stereotypes surrounding the computer science by demonstrating its both valuable and interesting lifelong skills.
- Provide opportunities to all aspiring computer scientists and give them the tools they need (knowledge, and a work space or computer) to fully master their skills.
- Promote the women in computer science movement by allowing young girls to express interest in a STEM field in an environment encouraging curiosity and technology-based exploration, without the presence of social stigmas.
You get the picture—no laziness in sight. Now let’s look at the majority of nonprofit organizations today that are struggling to stay relevant in their communications and methods of operation. If you have been to 10 seminars on nonprofits this year, you’ll have heard something about reaching Millennials at least 10 times. Everyone is looking for the magic formula for engaging youth, and we haven’t even started the conversation about Generation Z yet (Gen Z birth years are from 1995 to 2012).
A Culture Shift
What we are talking about is the shift from the traditional, top-heavy organization to the more nimble, organizationally flattened nonprofit. A cultural shift of this magnitude takes strong leadership, strategic planning and willingness to change. It is a shrewd nonprofit executive director or CEO who sees the value of soliciting input from those who are steeped in the latest technology and methods of communication—someone, well… younger. Why not ask the Jack Andrakas and Rupali Dhumnes of the world?
We won’t discuss all the market research and trend analysis that goes into determining the right path for any given nonprofit to take on their quest to remain culturally relevant. What we will focus on here is, the concept of using teens effectively as members of your nonprofit’s board of directors.
Yes, you read that correctly: teenagers holding positions on nonprofit boards of directors—and dare we say, even on your strategic planning committees. We asked the opinion of one nonprofit leader, Ted Ehrlichman, president and CEO of CareerSource Suncoast, a $6.8 million agency in based in Bradenton, Fla., who happens to have a board member who is also a high school student.
Ted told us, “Dynamic board leadership is the key to successful mission-focused nonprofit teams. The board’s primary job is vision-casting and setting strategy for the future. With that … it’s all the more essential to have our future leadership at that table.”
CareerSource Suncoast found the right student to participate on its board of directors through the STAR program of the Boys and Girls Club of Sarasota County. From the group’s website (as of November 2017), we found that “upon successfully completing the STAR Leadership Training, students may be eligible to serve on a nonprofit board of directors or a city or county advisory board as a full voting member. Students are matched with a position for a one-year term, which can be renewed. There are currently more than 75 boards that welcome a STAR student.”
Here’s where it gets interesting: having a teenager as a full voting member on a board of directors that has fiduciary responsibility for a $6.8 million organization.
Harbor Compliance discovered that, as of November 2017, Florida is the only state that specifically allows people age 15 and older to be members of nonprofit boards of directors. Each nonprofit may have one youth board member. See the list of nonprofit governance guidelines by state here. Seven states require board members to be over 18 years of age, and other states do not proactively prescribe any age requirements. This indicates that seating minors on nonprofit boards has not yet become a mainstream practice.
Why might this be, this state-specific incertitude about minors sitting at the board of directors’ table? Several big reasons come to mind. Nonprofit boards of directors are required to sign legal documents on behalf of the organization, as well as make budgetary and investment decisions. Unless specified as legal, as it is in Florida, can a minor sign contracts or legal documents on behalf of a nonprofit? If they are a full voting member, they should be able to. We’ve seen at least one nonprofit deal with this issue by having a high school student on the board, but as a non-voting member.
A second reason nonprofits might be wary centers around liability. All boards should have Directors & Officers insurance, but when my friends at Harbor Compliance consulted a lawyer, they advised that the nonprofit also get written parental permission for the student to act as a member of the board of directors. This may be especially relevant at social justice organizations where volunteer/board activities could include speaking out on politically charged issues, such as women’s health and gun violence. Volunteers of such organizations sometimes find themselves in dangerous or threatening situations. The liability of that with a minor is something to be considered and addressed.
There is one more reason that boards may be reluctant to have junior members: unbridled enthusiasm. What’s that, you say? Enthusiasm is a good thing, isn’t it? Of course, but some more established and traditional boards may be very used to doing things a certain way. Having a young person come in with tons of new ideas, some of which may not be viable in a business sense, may seem like a time waster to some. We would argue that fresh thinking is often sorely needed in those nonprofits, and that the way the student presents their concepts can be coached by a mentor—a senior board member. Having an assigned mentor can help the young director not only to feel comfortable in their governance role, but also to know what the established guidelines are (including things like confidentiality agreements, so the mentee knows what information about the organization can be shared and what is confidential).
Something to keep in mind: These students want to be on your board of directors. If they have enough interest in your organization that they’ve taken the initiative to join your board, they are likely going to be giving you their all. There are plenty of easier ways for them to earn community service hours!
If your state does not yet allow minors on boards, consider finding out if it is a future option. If your state doesn’t specify, ask! Remember to check your own organization’s bylaws to make ensure that this multi-generational approach is included/allowed.
We’re all looking for ways to keep our nonprofits relevant, to reach new volunteers and new donors as some of our current contributors and supporters reach “maturity”. Why not consider getting counsel from someone who, as Jack Andraka says, has “unbridled youthful enthusiasm” for your mission?
*The author is not a lawyer or CPA. For specific advice, please contact your legal or financial advisor.
Tracy Vanderneck is president of Phil-Com, a Florida-based training and consulting company where she works with nonprofits on fundraising, board development and strategic planning. Tracy has more than 20 years of experience in fundraising, business development and sales. She holds a Master of Science in management with a concentration in nonprofit leadership and a graduate certificate in teaching and learning. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive and an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer. Additionally, she designs and delivers online fundraising training classes and serves as a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach.