Young Professionals Deserve a Seat at the Table

Associations that create opportunities for emerging leaders to serve in staff or volunteer roles are more likely to remain relevant and have a solid leadership pipeline in place.

We often hear that diverse boards are stronger boards.  In addition, the dual impact of retiring and emerging workforces has inspired many associations to think strategically about succession planning and engaging the next generation.

Young professional committees and designated leadership positions are a great first step, but I challenge associations to not stop there. Specifically, I encourage them to commit to an organizational culture that engages young professionals at all levels—both as staff and volunteers.

When it comes to populating the board, don’t underestimate enthusiasm and overestimate experience.

What do these next steps look like?  It begins with thinking differently about your board of directors. Typically, board members interact almost exclusively with senior leadership and rarely with programmatic or junior staff. This is a mistake. No program happens in a bubble. Board members would benefit from a greater understanding of an association’s programs, and greater board interaction offers an opportunity to educate and empower staff at all levels.

Since boards are composed of experienced leaders within your industry, staff may benefit from a closer relationship with these individuals whose work they directly support. Reciprocally, staff who manage programs are poised to identify future leaders in the organization who may not be on the radar of a board member due to limitations of region or industry.

Reserving board interaction for senior staff prevents young professional employees from engaging with influential participants of your industry. A board of directors offers access to experience and expertise, and an association culture that welcomes interaction with the board of directors is one that is more transparent, and ultimately, stronger.

Consider making your board members more accessible by instituting a designated board role on all committees. Staff and volunteers will share a sense of impact in advancing the association’s work.  This will also help board members gain a greater understanding of the organization’s opportunities as they work closely with staff and volunteers who manage projects related to your organizational mission. You may also consider inviting young professionals on your staff to attend board meetings or provide them with opportunities to network with leadership.

When it comes to populating the board, don’t underestimate enthusiasm and overestimate experience. Your board members are enthusiastic ambassadors committed to sustaining the association and finding solutions to big questions. As our industries continue to be disrupted by global trends and technologies, associations will benefit from new perspectives from the next generation—while also playing a direct role in the hands-on development of the emerging leaders within their industry.

Once their board terms are up, these young professional board members can then go on to serve other association programs and committees. These individuals have the potential for greater longevity within your association, and rather than learning as they go along, they’ll be developed and prepared—and better ambassadors for your organization as a result.

Associations can eliminate discomfort from both emerging and experienced leaders by leveling the playing field in board leadership with ongoing training and orientation for everyone. It’s important to remember that effective board governance practices are skills that can be taught and developed.

Ultimately, it is important to engage young people in your association and industry. An engaged young audience is crucial for succession planning and maintaining relevance. Young professional committees are an excellent way to infuse your association with next-generation leaders, but I ask: can you go further?

As someone who has served as a member of several committees designated for young professionals, I know that the experience I’ve gained in those roles is invaluable. A designated leadership position or committee is a terrific step in the right direction. But don’t stop there! Create opportunities for emerging leaders in your association, whether as volunteers or staff. I guarantee that what they may lack in experience they will more than make up for in enthusiasm.

(Associations Now Illustration/iStock/Thinkstock)

Katrina Dunn

By Katrina Dunn

Katrina Dunn is director of development at the American Fisheries Society in Bethesda, Maryland. MORE

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