Forever Young: Where are all the young Trustees and how do we find them?
When I saw this article from the TATE about appointing the youngest ever Trustee of a UK national museum or gallery, it prompted me to reach out to join the conversation about what ‘youth engagement’ really means in this context.
Whilst I am supportive of this move and the appointment of Anna Lowe, who will no doubt make a very positive impact in the role, I felt it was important to raise a few questions, inspired by this appointment, and share some advice and guidance I have sourced from a number of anonymous young Trustees about how best to attract and recruit young people onto your Board.
Question 1: What do we actually mean when we say young?
The famous phrase ‘age is just a number’ might be true in life & love... but with an average of Trustees being 61, does *any* age below this count as young on a Board?
At 25 years old, I joined the Board of Emergency Exit Arts - an inspiring national outdoor arts organisation - and now, aged 28, I am Chair of the Board. By this point, I thought I had crossed the official ‘threshold’ of ‘young in the arts ‘(which according to most arts organisations is around 24/25) until I read the article and was reminded that I am much younger than I think...
If you are serious about attracting young Trustees onto your Board, you need to be sensitive to the cultural divides that significant age gaps bring. I spoke with young Trustees who, as the only young people on their Boards, expressed frustration with the way they have been treated by older Board members (a lot of tutting, interrupting and patronising), the quality of written documents (difficult to read and really old fashioned) and the over-engineered formalities that make the experience a bit daunting and boring, rather than progressive and exciting.
If you’re bringing young people on to your Board, you have to ask yourself whether as an organisation you are genuinely open to changing the way you do Governance. When is the last time you changed the way you run your meetings? Or use a new digital tool to track and share your KPIs? If you’re not willing to change the way you do things, how do you expect to change the members of your Board?
Question 2: Why do we need young people on Boards?
Is it essential that 'young' trustees focus on youth engagement, rather than this being an area of focus for the entire Board? When I joined Emergency Exit Arts, my age was never discussed. I was appointed for my unique combination of skills as a successful arts & cultural sector fundraiser, consultant & trainer, and as a theatre practitioner. The experience of being recruited for being me, rather than being my age, made a huge difference to my sense of worth as a Board team member from day one. I felt like I had earned a place at the table for being me, not for being a young person.
And despite my young person kudos, in terms of experience I actually feel I have little in common with the 18-year-olds who have grown up even more digitally native than I did. I can’t work my way round Snapchat, and despite extensive googling I still don’t know what TikTok is actually about. I have no idea who most current influencers are, and I struggle to keep up to date with new slang. I’m saying this because I’m not sure that I could be the one person that is there to represent their voices, views & interests on a Board - but I think a lot of 61-year-old Trustees might assume I can.
If you’re bringing young people onto your Board, try not to do so just because of their age. It could feel tokenistic and alienate them before it even starts. Don’t create an instant ‘us’ and ‘them’ - have a real think about why you want to bring a young person on. Is it about bringing their professional experience to the table? To understand the way they use your services? To bring new ideas for relevant ambassadors?
I spoke with one young Trustee who was asked to join his Board because of his technology skills, not because of his age. Despite not even knowing what a Trustee is ‘meant to do’, he thrived in the Boardroom and helped the organisation re-imagine a whole new digital system to improve the accessibility of their services to young people.
Question 3: How can we do this better?
There is no magic formula to this, but everyone I spoke to had some sage advice to share:
Start from where you are: are you looking to your current users and beneficiaries for potential young Trustees? This can be a rich source of people with the potential and talent to support your Governance.
Don’t just pick one: representation isn’t just suddenly achieved when you’ve platformed just one minority voice. Don’t assume that by recruiting one young person onto your Board you’ve cracked it - that very act might be the thing that makes them retreat and not feel able to contribute in the boardroom.
Don’t talk about their age: as mentioned above, don’t make their age the reason they are joining the board. This can instantly alienate, create divisions and feel tokenistic.
Change up your recruitment process: getting someone to construct a CV and cover letter about a complex voluntary opportunity is a big invisible barrier. Instead of asking people to talk about their experience which is assumed, old school and alienating, ask them to talk about their potential and the ideas that they want to bring to the room instead.
Don’t assume: Many existing Trustees and organisations say they worry that young people won’t “get” the risk management & financial paperwork side of Governance. Interesting… because I don’t know about you but I’ve seen plenty of adults not get it... So don’t assume they won’t understand it once they’ve had a go, provide all your Trustees (not just the young ones!) with some basic training and ongoing support, and make sure you ask yourself whether you actually present and explain it clearly and simply enough...
Make meaningful connections: don’t just contact a young person network to “advertise” your young Trustee opportunity - give them a venue, a donation or attend one of their events and actually get to know some of the people in a more meaningful and genuine way. Create those authentic relationships as you would with any potential Funder, Partner or high-flying desirable arts Trustee!