When Jess Liborio, age 16, first joined the board of The Food Project, the thought of talking during meetings filled her with anxiety. “There were only three young people on the board at that point, and we could hardly figure out how to jump into a conversation,” she recalls. “When I’m nervous, my face gets hot. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to say anything, because I’ll turn bright red!’

Now, four years later, Liborio feels comfortable talking about zero-based budgeting, marketing mix, and strategic planning—concepts that were foreign to her as a new board member. She is even working with the other board members to change the way meetings are run in order to make them more interactive and easier for young people to participate in.

How did The Food Project develop its strong youth governance program? First, they got excited about youth involvement. Second, they learned to laugh at—and learn from–their mistakes. Third, they turned to Youth on Board, a nonprofit organization in Somerville, Massachusetts, for assistance. Since 1994, Youth on Board has been assisting organizations who are committed to placing youth in leadership positions.

Although involving young people as staff, board members, and advisors dates back almost a century in some nonprofit organizations, renewed interest in the concept spread rapidly in the early 1990s among a handful of community-based organizations and national youth advocates. As the trend gained momentum, especially with the increased emphasis on constituent involvement, more organizations and foundations began making youth involvement an everyday part of doing business. Consider these examples:

  • The Girl Scouts of America mandates that 25 percent of each Girl Scout board must be made up of young women.
  • The National 4-H Council recently expanded its board, creating ten new positions for young people.
  • The W.K. Kellogg Foundation requires all 80 of the community foundations it funds in Michigan to organize youth grant-making committees.
  • The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts is now including young people on church vestries.
  • The Haymarket People’s Fund recently included young people in its allocations committee.

The inclusion of young people in the decisions and organizations that affect their lives is part of a nationwide movement, which reflects a growing awareness that young people are the missing voices in our communities, schools, and churches. Youth governance isn’t just about helping young people gain confidence and leadership skills–it also provides tangible benefits to nonprofit organizations. Most nonprofits agree that institutionalizing constituent involvement keeps them focused on their mission. But in addition to putting the organization in touch with a valuable constituency, the inclusion of young people on a board can also revitalize the group. They bring energy and a fresh perspective. They often catalyze a group to rethink its priorities, renew its commitment, and recognize the invisible barriers that have kept it from moving forward.

What would youth involvement bring to your organization? And how can you go about incorporating young people into governance structures? At Youth on Board, we have developed a 14-step process for creating a solid youth governance program (see below, “14 Points to Youth Involvement”). In this article we discuss three critical elements of the inclusion process: choosing the right model, creating an effective recruitment process, and providing training and orientation for young people.

There are almost as many models for youth involvement as there are organizations committed to the concept itself; however, the models generally fall into two general categories: those that directly involve young people in an existing governing body (board of directors, church council, city commission, foundation board, or tribal council); or adjunct groups that report into or advise the larger body (youth advisory board, youth commission, youth task force, or youth policy committee).

By including young people on a governing body, an organization gains the most benefit from their input and leadership. Likewise, the young people are given a real-time opportunity to develop leadership skills and to see the progress of the work in which they are participating. The success of this type of model, however, depends on ongoing individual and organizational commitment to the process. As is the case with any board member, a solid training and orientation program is necessary to ensure that youth leaders understand their roles and responsibilities. At the same time, adults may need to be coached on how to work effectively–and share decision-making authority–with young leaders.

One possibility is to create and adjunct body. This provides many of the benefits of full board membership, while avoiding some of the risks. For example, participation in an advisory group can provide young people with a safe place to practice decision-making and learn how to work effectively in groups. The larger board benefits from the unique viewpoints and contributions of the smaller group; however, since the group serves only in an advisory capacity, issues around authority and shared decision-making are avoided.

There are some key considerations, regardless of the approach chosen. For example, if you are thinking about adding young people to a current governing body:

  • Add two or three young people at the same time. Anything less can too easily lead to token representation.
  • Be ready to implement a thorough training and orientation process. The young people will need coaching and support in their new responsibilities.
  • Consider the legal issues. There are legal issues concerning organizational liability and youth voting rights. Know the law in your state [see the sidebar, “Legal Issues”]

If you are considering setting up an adjunct group:

  • Be clear about the group’s responsibilities and scope of authority. Make sure that the governing body agrees upon the role of this group and that it is willing to respect and act upon the group’s decisions and recommendations. Be sure, too, that young people understand the limits of their authority, so there are no unclear expectations.
  • Create organizational support structures. Staff or board members will need to commit time and energy to set up the group and monitor its activities.
  • Establish clear channels of communication. Consider selecting a board member or advisory group member to be the liaison between the two groups to ensure that they are each well-informed of the other’s activities.

Which approach your organization should take depends to a large extent on how committed the current members are to sharing decision-making power with young people, and on how much time staff is willing to spend to create an effective program. If your organization is not yet committed to youth leadership at the board level, consider other ways to get young people involved. For example, although the Foley, Hoag and Elliott Fund was not ready for full-fledged youth board members, they wanted to get young people more involved in the grant decisions they made. They set up a youth-advised fund, and set aside a certain amount of money to be given out in six-month grant cycles. Young people, selected from the fund’s past grantee organizations, participated in grant review training and conducted site visits to select potential grantees. Two of the youth representatives then met with the foundation’s board to present the group’s recommendations for funding. Not only did the board benefit from the youth representative’s perspectives, the young people had an opportunity to learn first-hand about the grant-making process.

The search is on! Once your board, advisory council, vestry, or other governing body has decided to include a young decision-maker–or better yet, several—the next question is: Who do we choose? At least half of the success of your intergenerational board will depend on the effectiveness of your recruitment process. Before you begin the search, carefully consider what you want in a young board member. As with any strong team, the membership of a governing body should reflect an even balance of interests, skills, and diversity. In general, you want someone who possesses maturity, solid capabilities, and a unique perspective. In particular, we suggest you look for the following attributes when choosing a young decision maker:

  • Readiness for an adult-oriented environment. Working with people ten or twenty years your senior requires confidence and an ability to speak out.
  • Willingness to work. To be a strong contributor, a young person must be ready to take on special projects or join committees.
  • Connections with other youth. Someone who is well connected to other young people in your community can widen the base of support for your organization and bring the issues and concerns of their constituency to the table.

When recruiting young people, resist the temptation to reach out to people who you think need more services or who you want to help. While well-intentioned, this is not an effective governance selection policy. Conversely, don’t limit your search to the stellar young people who are already in leadership positions in their schools and communities. Youth board members who, while talented, are over-committed will have little time to invest in board responsibilities. I know of one organization that addressed this concern by changing its recruitment strategy to target “undertapped” young people—those who had time and energy to give but had never led a youth project or served in a leadership position. Although the investment in training these board members was greater, the strategy paid off: the group tackled their work with energy and enthusiasm, recruited their peers to become more involved in activities, and developed the strongest board in the organization’s history. The next year, adults played almost no role in the recruitment or selection process–the former board members did it all.

Being in a minority position in a large group can be an overwhelming and intimidating experience. Helping young people feel welcome and comfortable in their new leadership position is critical to their success. They will need information, supportive relationships, and a clear sense of their role in the organization. A good orientation process can achieve these goals.

An orientation can be as simple as a meeting to go over basic information about the mission and history of the organization, the role of a board or committee member, and logistics about meeting times and dates. Whatever you do, try to make it enjoyable and be sure to provide opportunities for new members to meet the rest of the committee or board. Personal relationships go a long way in ensuring that young people stay involved and active in an organization. Regardless of what form an orientation program takes, it should include:

  • A Letter of Agreement. A letter outlining the expectations and responsibilities of the new member.
  • An Orientation Session. A meeting to explain the role and allow new members to share their questions and concerns.
  • Ongoing Orientation. Informal meetings to touch base with new members during their first several months to answer any new questions.
  • A Parent Orientation. A discussion, by phone or in person, with each young person’s parent to review the scope of responsibilities and schedule of board activities, and to address any concerns they might have. Parental support is key to young people’s continued involvement in an organization.

A strong mentoring program can also provide crucial ongoing support for young people. Have youth board members and their mentors meet before and after board meetings to review the agenda, discuss any questions, and devise concrete plans for active participation (such as developing a list of questions or comments to bring to the meeting). Having a mentor gives young people an opportunity to “check-in” about their board experience and to ask questions in a safe environment.

Ongoing skills training can also help young people develop their leadership skills and be more effective board members. Consider creating a training program to cover such topics as fundraising, public speaking, how to write a report, and how to read a budget. Perhaps youth members can meet with a staff member before each board meeting to work on a specific topic. Or better yet, have the young people design their own training program. What skills do they feel they need to develop? How can they best learn those skills–a workshop, apprenticeship, reading? Who can help them acquire these skills?

And young people aren’t the only ones who need training in order to make youth governance work. Many adults are unaccustomed to working with young people as equals. Stereotypes and myths about teens can get in the way of productive relationships, which is why communication and relationship-building skills are critical to making youth/adult partnerships work. Consider conducting an intergenerational board training, in which youth and adult members can share their views of each other. Encourage adults to recall what it was like to be young. Have the young people talk about their lives. Give people a chance to laugh about the stereotypes we all hold about age. Activities like these help build understanding and result in a stronger, more effective team.

The key to a successful youth governance program is flexibility and persistence. Be clear from the beginning about goals and expectations, but be willing to revise your assumptions and try new approaches if necessary. Learn from the successes and failures of past programs that you have implemented. If possible, try to institutionalize youth involvement by setting up permanent structures to ensure continued youth involvement. For example, some organizations have changed their bylaws to reserve a certain number of board seats for young people.

Be patient with yourself and with others throughout the process. This is new territory for many organizations, so be prepared to make mistakes, pick yourself up and dust yourself off, and try again. Networking with other organizations that are involved in youth governance is a great way to keep the momentum going and to learn from other people’s experiences.

Most of all, be optimistic. Remember that young people are capable of many things. After all, Mozart composed his first symphony at age six, and Einstein wrote his first paper on relativity at age 16. We need the intelligence and perspective that young people can bring to our organizations. If you fear your group is too “grown-up” for its own good, don’t despair. With a little planning and investment, young people will be speaking up, taking the lead, and even running meetings in no time at all!

Many of the ideas in this article were taken from the book, 14 Points to Involving Young People in Governance (January 1999) published by Youth on Board in Somerville, MA. Phone (617) 623-9900 x1242.

Colleen Lannon is managing director of Youth on Board. Mark Ferguson and Maura Wolf also contributed to this article.

14 Points to Youth Governance

  1. Know why you want to involve young people
  2. Assess your readiness
  3. Determine the structure that works for you
  4. Identify organizational barriers
  5. Overcome attitudinal barriers
  6. Address legal issues
  7. Recruit young people
  8. Create a strong orientation process
  9. Design training for young people
  10. Conduct intergenerational training
  11. Make meetings work
  12. Develop a mentoring plan
  13. Develop and network young leaders
  14. Understand your role as an adult

One of the most frequently asked questions posed by organizations that are considering adding young people to their boards is: Can young people legally serve on a board of directors? Given that the board has a legal and fiduciary responsibility for the organization, they are concerned that including minors as voting board members might affect the organization’s ability to enter into contracts and pass binding resolutions.

Although laws about youth involvement vary from state to state, in general they support young people as legitimate decision-makers. Consult with a lawyer to learn what laws apply in your state. If there is no explicit law on youth board members, young people can fully participate in board discussions, activities, and votes. However, we suggest the following precautionary measures:

  • Young people should not serve as officers in charge of financial matters or be signers on checking accounts.
  • Young people should not sign binding contracts with consultants, businesses, or other entities.
  • In matters that involve legal contracts, young people’s votes should not be used to break a tie or count toward a majority vote.

If your state does not allow minors to legally serve on boards, you can still find opportunities to involve young people in significant ways, such as in ex-officio or ad-hoc positions. In this way, young people can participate in discussions, serve on committees, and partake in all board activities except voting. Or you can create a youth advisory committee that researches and makes recommendations on issues, which are then voted on by the board. Of course, you can always decide to change the law in your state! This past November, largely as a result of grassroots organizing, the “Youth on Board” law was passed in Michigan, enabling young people over the age of 16 to serve as full voting members of boards of directors