Wisdom Wednesdays: Intentional Board Changes can Build a Future for Nonprofits

by Ian Adnams

A few years ago I tried skeet shooting.  I didn’t do well (which is good because I never found a good recipe for grilled skeet!).  I discovered the trick was anticipating the position of the clay disc in the air and pulling the trigger at the right time to make sure the shot hit the moving target.  Timing and practice are the key elements to success.  Although you can usually figure out where the disc will be, your actions need intentional decisions to make it happen.  Hoping for success won’t cut it.

Nonprofit volunteer boards often hope the future of their organization is secure without taking intentional steps to make it so.  When positions on the board become available it often falls to the existing board members to seek replacements, usually from their own networks.  In other words, they will usually find people just like them.

That’s where intentionality becomes important.  If a board keeps replacing itself with the same kind of board member, it will naturally age and eventually cease to exist.  However, if it is diligent in finding younger people to become involved in the organization, it will naturally be introduced to a new network, helping it grow and thrive.

A recent webinar, “Learn How to Attract the Next Generation of Donors,” presented by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, noted that although some organizations may ask younger people for input, they will not necessarily provide opportunities for them to assume leadership positions.  This trend reduces the board’s ability to understand the current social environment.

As boards explore ways to intentionally refresh their composition, it’s important to consider what kinds of people and skills the board needs for good decision making.  Most of the time those competencies center on financial skills.  But a board needs more than financial smarts.  What about understanding the changing world around them?  Although board members know younger people spend a lot of time online, how many of them bring to the table a thorough understanding of what that means?  It’s easy to lament the lack of engagement by a new generation, but does anyone sitting around the table know how reach out to them?

Over the years I’ve challenged boards to recruit or find potential board members who are half their age.  I call it the “better by half” approach: a 60 year-old finds a 30 year-old.  Don’t just have a “token” younger member.  He or she brings to the board your future, so give that person the same respect and responsibilities given everyone.

In addition to infusing a board with younger blood (thereby introducing the possibility of longer-term survival), younger people come with their personal network.  Studies show that young adults display a high level of peer engagement with causes and organizations.  Have one or more young people on the board and the interest spreads.

Next time your board or council meets look around the group and see where you could be “better by half.”

Good governance doesn’t happen by accident.  It takes planning and intentional decisions.  Change happens when you are doing it on purpose.

Ian Adnams is the Principal Consultant for the Adnams Group, a Vancouver-based communications company dedicated to combining creative thinking with strategic direction to produce the highest levels of engagement with customers, support constituencies, stakeholders and leaders.  Ian serves as Vice-President of Canadian Church Press and also was President from 2003-2005.

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