Indianapolis not-for-profit brings in 15-year-old director

November 12, 2007

An Indianapolis not-for-profit has taken one of the most radical approaches yet toward trying to remain relevant to the next generation and to perpetuate its mission.

It's put a 15-year-old on its board of directors.

To put that in a little historical perspective, the year Robert Webster was born, Jay Leno succeeded Johnny Carson. President George H. Bush vomited on the lap of the Japanese prime minister during a state dinner. And a slick, ex-Arkansas governor was elected to the nation's highest office.

But Concord Neighborhood Center doesn't want Webster's perspective on the past as much as it wants his input on how it should respond to youth now and in the future.

He's already given his views on how the 130-year-old organization should allocate financial aid dollars to youth bound for college.

"For those of us who sit around the table, it's a reminder of what we do and what we're about," said board member Rick Johnson, whose day job is president of Active Adult Learning Communities Inc.

Webster, an Emmerich Manual High School student, is soft-spoken. Perhaps it's a survival trait learned in a family dominated by sisters.

"The best thing about this," he said of the board, "is the input that I can give."

He credits Concord with helping "straighten kids up for the real world."

In Webster's age group, "often they don't have a sense for where they belong," said Lynn Rogers, director of children/youth at Concord. "This gives them a chance to have a say."

Naming teen-agers to advisory boards of not-for-profits isn't unusual--but naming a teen to the position of full-fledged board member is almost unheard of.

"There is no research to suggest there is such a trend in regard to teen-agers," said Larry Smith, director of the Third Millennium Institute at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

One issue faced by organizations that have considered appointing teen board members is whether someone younger than age 21 is able to contract or participate in certain binding decisions by the board, said Bryan Orander, president of Indianapolis consulting firm Charitable Advisors.

That's not been a problem at Concord, Johnson said, because many of the approvals are made on a committee basis rather than being subject to individual board member approvals.

A number of not-for-profits wisely are realizing they need to reach the younger generation now lest they face membership declines in the years ahead.

Indianapolis-based Kiwanis International, for example, is retooling to reach a younger generation that has lots more opportunities to do service work outside the traditional dues-paying membership model, primarily through a proliferation of specialized service organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.

"One of the most difficult times we have is keeping teen-agers around," said Rogers, noting they have so many more options for their spare time.

Having Webster on board piques the interest of other teens and improves Concord's visibility among youth, Rogers added.

Concord directors were challenged by the United Way to find a way to include more youth in leadership, said Mary Dusel, one of the organization's 20 board members.

Picking Webster was a no-brainer for the group. He was the third generation of his family to use the center. He participated since age 6 at Concord in numerous programs from after-school care to sports. He has a fundamental understanding of its operation and appreciation for its services that an outsider wouldn't grasp.

Webster, who wants to be a lawyer, concedes he was more than a little interested in how boards of directors work.

Engaging young people in a not-for-profit's future is a smart move, particularly to the extent they can receive mentoring, said IU's Smith, whose institute at the IU center looks at expanding philanthropic leadership among women, minorities and youth.

But at the same time, those younger people can mentor older-generation leaders in the sense of getting their elders to understand generational differences.

"Don't just include youth--engage them ... learn from them," Smith said.

Research has shown certain so-called X and Y generations prefer task-specific, time-oriented participation in not-for-profits. They work long hours and are more inclined to value balance in their lives.

"It's not that they don't want to serve, but there are some generational differences. ... They are less likely to want to work for 60 hours a week and do something on top of that."

Developing future leaders is critical as an estimated 75 percent of not-for-profit executives plan to leave their jobs in the next five years as baby boomers retire. Organizations will need to attract and develop 640,000 new senior managers over the next decade, about 2-1/2 times those working now, according to a 2006 study by BridgeSpan Group in Boston.

"This [cultivating younger leaders] is not a 'nice-to-do' in the not-for-profit sector. This is a must-do," IU's Smith said. "What we're talking about is really the survival of the sector."

Concord's executive director, Niki Lynn Girls, said she'd like to see another young person join the board.

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