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Getty Images / Archi Banal
Getty Images / Archi Banal

OPINIONSocietyJune 7, 2022

The case for more young people in the boardroom

Getty Images / Archi Banal
Getty Images / Archi Banal

One simple trick to achieve the ‘youth engagement’ so many organisations strive for? Actually offering young people a seat at the table.

“Youth are our future!” It’s a refrain nearly every politician and community leader has uttered at least once over the past few decades.

As a young person myself, I feel privileged to be heralded as a beacon of hope in this way, leading our society into the future with enthusiasm and a little bit of wide-eyed naivety.

But in actual fact, despite the rhetoric, very few young people have any real control over the future of the organisations that they are involved in or beneficiaries of. All while Aotearoa’s community organisations struggle with a severe shortage of volunteer directors, and grapple with how to increase their appeal to younger generations.

So why not offer a few more places for rangatahi around the boardroom table?

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that we fill our boards entirely with high school graduates. I’m advocating for community organisations to strike a balance between experience and fresh perspectives at a governance level. This is most relevant for organisations that work with, or for, younger demographics.

It’s generally accepted that a diverse board, bringing together a range background and skills, does better governance. However, so far at least, young people have been largely left out of the picture.

Community organisations tend to rely on the wealth of experience provided voluntarily by benevolent professionals. These members are often highly respected community leaders, whose stewardship is integral to the organisations’ success. But once a board is filled with members of a similar age the scope of its strategy and policy invariably narrows. Even if that board is bristling with decades of experience from every profession imaginable, it’s missing out on useful perspectives.

Three older white men in business suits gathered around a boardroom table
Boards no longer look like this, thank goodness – except for the age thing (Photo: Getty Images)

Bringing a younger person onboard (forgive the pun) provides not only a set of fresh ideas and values, but offers opportunities for already good ideas to be improved. Young board members may not always suggest the most orthodox policies and plans, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And, quite obviously, young board members can look at an organisation’s activities from the viewpoint of the young people who are connected to it. They can provide invaluable advice on potential opportunities and risks which won’t be foreseen by other generations – and that goes well beyond simply advising the organsisation to use the most recent technology or to get an Instagram account. Just like any board member, they’re there to provide their views when they have the relevant knowledge or skills, not to make every decision.

This is an easy solution if your organisation is struggling to engage youth or maintain a volunteer force. In recent years, many major charities have identified youth engagement as a strategic goal. It’s something that money is being thrown at, and fair enough. It’s important. But to reach the full extent of engagement and participation that community organisations want, they need to include a younger perspective at governance level. Nobody wants to be aligned with an organisation that doesn’t match their values, or provide the opportunities that they’re looking for. Consultation, that old standby, helps, but the results still need to be considered by someone who can really relate. While one person will never be able to represent the fully nuanced range of opinions of any group, it’s the inclusion of a young perspective combined with an ear to the ground which drives successful engagement.

For anyone who’s sceptical that a young person could be mature, responsible or capable for a role such as trustee or board member, I have news for you: Our law requires that all high school boards have a student representative, elected by students. That student board member has equal standing with all other members, including the principal. They have equal voice, equal vote, and equal accountability. Between you and me, I’d add that the student rep often has a far better idea of what’s going on in the school than many of the parent representatives.

This student rep thing has been in our law for a while. In fact, its origins can be traced to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which outlines internationally recognised basic rights for minors. One of the key rights in the convention is that young people have the right to an opinion, and to have that opinion considered. As a result, every high school board in Aotearoa has a member aged between 14 and 18, and it’s accepted as normal. The more observant readers will also notice that even with such terribly inexperienced board members, our schools seem to be doing just fine.

So, given that we have seen this system operating successfully across secondary schools, why is the non-profit sector taking its sweet time? So many community organisations and charities in this country work for, or involve youth in some way. Most will fail to engage young people to the extent that their charter or strategic plan says they want to. Some will make decisions that are wildly inconsistent with the values or goals of the young people they want to help. And very few will put a young person on the board to help prevent either of those eventualities.

Aotearoa is improving. We now not only try to have an accountant and a lawyer on every board, we look to appoint boards comprising a wide range of backgrounds too. As we move further into the 21st century and we get better at representing the perspectives of all people in this country, let’s not forget to consider age. Besides, I think I remember someone saying we’re the future.

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