“It’s time to end social distancing! I’m not referring to the Covid19 two metre spacing but the social distance that is growing between generations. Young voices are less likely to heard on the issues that matter to them and rarely are involved or share in decisions that will affect their future. An inclusive vision and mission for our country and the organisations that shape it, is more likely to be realised when every voice, particularly that of young leaders, is valued and heard. At a time when young people are facing disproportionate covid19 consequences and challenges in the future they deserve to be at the table, particularly in the boardroom and any other forum, council, or parliament, that is making decision that will affect them. If we are all in this together, then every voice counts”.
James Cathcart, founder and Director of Young Voices Heard and former Chief Executive at the British Youth Council, is a supporter and member of the Young Trustee Movement which aims to double the number of young trustees under 30 on charity boards. In this article he reflects on his experience of recruiting young people to charity boards – processing over 250 young trustee applications and coordinating governance support to over 40, including nine young chairs – to explore some innovative approaches to greater youth participation in governance, including a checklist for a Quality Mark. In early May an Open Letter to the PM, signed by over 130 young leaders and 80 organisations, asked that young people be more fully engaged and heard on Covid19 (Young people, organisations and allies can join the Movement to access free resources and its network for change. Young Voices Heard offers a range of support and training services to promote positive youth participation, leadership and engagement in public life)
“Bringing younger people to the table will add diversity, relevance, and sustainability to the life of your organisation and enhance good governance in society. One day age-diversity will be as common as ethnicity, faith or gender inclusion. Young trustees will be the new normal, not the novelty. I believe that now, more than ever before, the next generation needs to be part of shaping the vision of organisations that want to be relevant to its future, especially in a post-covid world that must now include young people. To deliver that vision tomorrow it must embrace intergenerational governance today, renewing fresh perspectives, all equal and working stronger together.
Supporting young people to empower themselves as active stakeholders in public life is one of the driving values of the youth-led British Youth Council charity. My experience of working for and with its young trustees for nine years inspired me to continue to support and campaign at ‘Young Voices Heard’ for more young voices to be heard in other boardrooms. I agree with the Young Trustee Movement’s goals not only because it is persuasive in theory but also because I’ve seen it work in practice. From a CEO’s unique perspective and I witnessed dozens of examples of young people proving that they can ‘govern’ effectively, as a team and in officer roles including Chair of the Board.
It resulted in them engaging more effectively as leaders and campaigners in public life, persuasively advocating on behalf of their peers to inform and influence public policy, in Government, local Government, and being changemakers to other decision-makers on the issues that matter to them – education, mental health, inequality racism, climate change… covid19?
Following induction and residential training (two nights of the whole board) all the young trustees that I worked with quickly adapted to their role, benefiting from training as well as peer support when paired with existing trustees.
They understood what governance meant as distinct from operational management and took pride in being ambassadors and guardians of the charities vision and mission and, as a result, tended to be very diligent in their role. They were often creative in conducting board business, willing to break into small groups, developing innovative presentations, and using digital technology to enhance their contribution. But this required a lot of preparation and a belief that equal youth voice and participation is not just leadership training for the future but is an applicable skill today.
Many young people can work well, and indeed thrive in an age-diverse team, especially if that team is holistically recruited to fit its purpose. This principle can apply to organisations that not only work with young people, but in any where a youth perspective and networks will strengthen the boards relevance today, sustainability tomorrow, and continually extending their future vision’s horizon.
However, if the Young Trustee Movement is to meet and exceed its targets, we must move beyond the low-hanging fruit and persuade and support a much broader audience of the unconvinced – to engage both aspiring young trustees and support organisations willing to recruit them. Ideally youth participation will become as common as gender and minorities participation, the new normal and not the novelty. Quotas are currently a popular starting point, but there is a danger that they institutionalise tokenism and cap participation, unless they are part of a journey to equal status by having an age-inclusive recruitment policy, building on a culture of participation in other roles throughout the organisation.
To achieve this the challenge is two-fold, not only to prepare and support young recruits to be board-ready, but also to prepare and support an older generation to be youth-ready, each appreciating the role of the other and seeing the mutual benefit of coming together, both as individuals and to the charity as a whole.
Good intentions alone are not enough and can lead to mis-matched expectations, tokenism and disappointment. There needs, in my view, to be a benchmark, a set of minimum standards, including one that ensures current practice is transparent and open to scrutiny, and best practice can be recognised with quality assurance mark.
Perhaps members of the Trustee Movement Membership could proudly display a membership badge on their organisations websites, which when clicked reveals their commitment to participation and some factual information such as the number, and proportion of young trustees currently on their board, similar to that awarded by Youth Employment UK .
What should young people/supporters/funders/media be looking for in a ‘young trustee movement-friendly’ organisation and its communications?
1. Does the organisation have an easy-to-find and read ‘youth voice and participation policy and pledge which includes …
a. Why the charity recruits young trustees?
b. What skills, experience and preparation are needed?
c. What resources, support and training are available to fulfil the role?
d. The number and proportion of current young trustees on the board?
2. What other ways young people inform and influence the organisation?
3. Whether the organisation’s annual report/comms describe the impact of ‘youthvoice’?
4. If young people are also in public facing roles (Patron, Ambassador, Media Spokesperson)?
5. Whether the organisation point to an audit, assessment or benchmark* of its policy and practice against national standards or Quality Mark* which includes young people’s feedback?
6. If it does not have 1-5, but is committed to achieving these goals – does it set out how, and by when?
7. How can young people/you apply?
I’m convinced that society, now and in the future, would be so much better off and better prepared as a result of planned youth participation in decision-making in the boardroom, as well as through the development of other youth leadership roles in organisations. Let’s make those goals easier to achieve by recognising where it is already taking place, and make quality opportunities more transparent and accessible to those young people who want to come on board.
James Cathcart Director, Founder of http://www.YoungVoicesHeard.org.uk @YVH_YouthVoice
*Young Voices Heard (YVH) is a platform for youth voice and participation in meaningful decision-making on the issues that matter to the next generation. YVH also provides a range of support services to organisations and individuals including training, mentoring and fundraising to achieve a level of good practice against benchmarked* national standards and is developing a Quality Mark*.
**Youth Employment UK – ‘Youth Friendly Employer Mark’