Saturday, March 27, 2010

Younger Minds Attract Younger Audiences*

IF "YOUNGER MINDS ATTRACT YOUNGER AUDIENCES" isn't your institution's mantra, you should seriously consider making it so.  Not just for staff and volunteers, I'm thinking this needs to be your board's mantra, too.  That's particularly true for well-established, highly structured cultural organizations presenting traditional programming formats. You know these organizations; you may work or volunteer in one.
While we read about the graying of audiences for some cultural activities, I'm wondering how gray the board and senior staff are.  Do you think there's a distinct correlation?  
Younger minds do more than attract younger audiences.  They keep the cobwebs at bay.  They help us question accepted practice and remix familiar elements to make new connections.  And they are the fundamental bridges to our organizations' futures.
Some organizations utilize "junior boards" for folks under 40 to try out their chops.  If you shine there, you'll get to move up to the "grown-up board" someday.  Some organizations create "junior committees" primarily to foster under-40 philanthropy (their activities always look like a lot more fun than the grander, big-money affairs). 
In big, bureaucratic institutions these mechanisms undoubtedly have a place for training, mentoring, and shaping next generation leadership.  But for most culturals, there's a pressing need to bring younger minds to the board room today.  It seems that few, though, have any inkling how to do that.  

Stereotypes about board service -- good, bad, and downright ugly -- seem to prevent so many boards from looking beyond a fairly short radius of known quantities.  This is particularly true when it comes to looking for younger minds.  These boards need to do two things immediately:  1) quit repeating that under-40's don't have time for board service, and 2) quit saying you don't know anyone.  All great boards are fed by far-reaching, complementary networks, and age is one of them.
If you've made an honest attempt to attract younger minds to board service and come up short, I submit that you need to rethink your organization's expectations of board service and its mission.

Photo:  Visitor Video Competition from Brooklyn Museum

* Carol Vogel.  "The New Guard of Curators Step Up".  New York Times:  March 13, 2010.  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/18/arts/artsspecial/18NEXTGEN.html

6 comments:

cdilly said...

Hi Anne,

I think this post is spot-on, and it's perfect timing in the wake of The Chronicle of Philanthropy's "Do Nonprofit Boards Really Want Younger Members?"article Thursday! (http://philanthropy.com/blogPost/Do-Nonprofit-Boards-Really/22039/ for any who haven't seen it.)

I'm a member of Gen Y and so, quite predictably, are most of my friends. Organizations that want to reach me and secure me as a donor have the greatest chance of doing this through my contacts. I imagine this has been true for every generation.

I think you're right that organizations leaving younger folks off of the board will always be missing that opportunity to both attract younger audiences and "keep the cobwebs at bay," (well said)... though, I may be biased. :)

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Hi Colleen,

Thanks for your comment and link to Rosetta's post. I just left this comment there:

The bottom line for me is that boards work best when there is a diversity of voices around the table. I think that a mixed age group offers a range of experiences and wisdom that each member can tap into and learn from (just as racial, ethnic, economic diversity does). Diversity enhances individual strengths and compensates for individual weaknesses.

The challenges for many boards is to 1) embrace this philosophy and 2) to act on it. Making it a reality takes strategy, time, and a willingness to reach beyond the circle of familiar board faces. In doing so, the organization will be creating new networks for itself. Diversification (of boards, staffs, volunteers, audiences) becomes an act of organizational empowerment.

lizthefair said...

Great post Anne! I would add it's not enough to put people under 40 on your board, you also have to listen to them. I've been in many a meeting where younger voices may have been invited to the table--but when they offer a dissenting point of view they are either ignored, or reminded they don't have enough experience to really know what is going on. Not a good way to encourage participation by the next generation.

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Excellent point, Maureen, and I'm sorry I didn't make that point in the piece. This is one of those issues that is age-less, don't you think?

lizthefair said...

I think you are right about age-less. There is a tendency to ignore the contributions of young people, but to be fair it's fairly common to ignore outliers in general. It's ironic that we invite people to serve on boards to help us get "diverse perspectives" and then we get all worked up when they look at things differently than we do ;)

This is one of the biggest reasons I support consensus based decision making. It helps break a group's instinct to assume the best solution is the one most obvious to the majority of the group.

Carole said...

After my election to my first Board, the Executive Director happily exclaimed, "Now we have 3 Board members under 40!"

Although flattered, I sadly had to let her know she was under a misapprehension, as I was at the time 45.

Moral of the story: you can't judge a book by its cover... :-)