Youth Discrimination on Charity Boards

Young people are the future of this country, and they are the future leaders of the third sector. Surely the quicker we can encourage and mentor them, the better?

Following the publication of the Young Trustees' Guide from CAF this month, this article has been reworked slightly from my original posting on LinkedIn.

Discrimination - what does that word mean to you? Its official definition is "the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people". Often the word is used in regards to people who are: disabled; a different race; not a certain sex; or not from the right family background. What about age discrimination?

It is usually assumed that age discrimination is towards people perceived as being too old - but what about those of us who are perceived as being too young? "They're not experienced enough yet!"; "They doesn't know the real world!"; "I've seen this before; you're too young to remember."; "I've done this in previous jobs". All are phrases that young people, including I, have heard. These phrases could possibly be standard verbatim in an office, where you're paid for work - they shouldn't be - but would you expect them on a charity board, where you are giving your time, voluntarily? Sadly, it's seen all too often.

Youth discrimination on charity boards is higher than sex or racial discrimination. According to Charity Commission (England & Wales) figures, only 0.5% of trustees are aged 18-24; females make up between 36-45% of charity board members and 8% of charity board members are not white. The report also revealed that the average age of a trustee is 57, and two-thirds of trustees are aged 50 and over. That's all very interesting - but why don't young people get involved as trustees? In my opinion, it's because of ageism.

Eighty five percent of people under 35 would consider becoming a trustee, but many are disheartened or put off due to the attitude of the old guard towards current, young trustees. The old guard (current, well established trustees) sometimes don't see young people as experienced enough, nor do they see their opinions worthy of note because "we know better. We've lived longer". The terms 'boy' or 'girl', 'child' and 'little lady' or 'little man' are used from boardroom to conference calls when addressing young people - often, in my experience, from older people who are less qualified and less knowledgeable than the young members themselves. If these terms (and judgements) were used about people of different races or genders, it would be racism or sexism. Everyone's opinions on a board should matter; decisions should be made on credibility of argument, not based upon the age of the person having the debate.

Having a diverse board by including young people is advantageous for the organisation, as well as for the young people themselves.

From a governance perspective, organisations that include all demographics within their decision making processes often gather more confidence, kudos, and respect from the public. Furthermore, by representing a larger spectrum of the diverse population that exists in the UK, charities are better equipped to spot changes to cultures and attitudes quicker. This is where groupthink theory is represented: if everyone is of the same mindset, changes will not be seen and questions will not be asked. Young trustees tend to not be in the same inner cliques as the older members and are able to a) ask the questions that others won't ask and/or b) spot changes from the outside.

I am also a big advocate of young trustees on boards of youth-orientated organisations - for assurance of direction, if nothing else. If a youth organisation doesn't involve young people in the strategic process, how can it be sure it is actually meeting the needs of the young people it serves? To understand what products your consumers want, include them in the product design.

For the young people themselves, being on a charity board brings new skills that will be useful in future careers, such as budget creation, financial reforecasting, strategy creation, and planning. As well as this, it gives credible experience for CVs and interviews. It also provides an opportunity for networking with senior level professionals, but lastly it provides an opportunity to give back to society. By offering insights into new fundraising ideas targeting young people; or by being a role model to younger organisation members, being a charity trustee gives young people the chance to shape the future of an industry.

Given the advantages, why is it that the old guard are reluctant to let young people have a major say in governing charitable organisations? Is it fear, ego, or something else...?

Young people are the future of this country, and they are the future leaders of the third sector. Surely the quicker we can encourage and mentor them, the better?

For more information on becoming a trustee, encouraging young trustees and the benefits of having young trustees on charity boards (both for the young people and the organisations), please consult the Young Trustees' Guide from CAF.


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