Board Service by Young People

By Jenny Sazama and Karen S. Young
From Your Guide to Youth Board Involvement and the Law (free PDF), Youth on Board, 2001, pp.19-20

Even if your state prohibits youth from serving on a board, there are many ways to secure meaningful youth involvement without running the risk of liability. The first critical step you can take is to demonstrate to young people that your agency views them as equal partners. Young people who see that their opinions and ideas are valued will participate more fully and responsibly in an organization.

Make sure to involve more than just one young person on your board. Invite several so they can support each other. We recommend that organizations serving youth consider making at least one-quarter of their board young people. This will help your organization to avoid the traps of tokenism and isolation, which discourage young people from participation.

Of course, some organizations may choose to adopt participation structures in which all of the members consist of young people. An all-youth structure can be very effective in some organizations.

Regardless of the ways that you decide to involve young people, you will need to provide them with support to effectively fulfill their roles. This support can include making sure that they have a job or position description that details their role and its limitations, scheduling activities around school and family demands, and providing them with ongoing opportunities for training and mentorship. Plan to add money to your budget to support young people. Don’t expect young people to be able to afford making organizational purchases without receiving the the money in advance…

For adult-run organizations that want to involve young people, we advocate the Youth Infusion Principle. The Youth Infusion Principle assumes that young people should be involved in all levels of organizational decision- making and governance as equal partners with adults in adult-run organizations. This does not apply to youth-run organizations. The areas in which young people can be involved in your organization are limited only by your imagination.

Many of the structures for involvement may share similar characteristics but may have different responsibilities, focus on different issues, or operate differently, depending on the organization. These configurations may include youth and adults working together or youth only. Be creative and involve young people to the greatest extent possible. And remember, it is always more ideal to involve young people in decision-making roles as opposed to advisory or informal roles where they have no governing authority.

In states where there are no laws that specifically prohibit or allow for youth board participation, organizations can adopt the Youth Infusion Principle and involve young people in all of its structures. However, your organization will have to decide what structures will best minimize any risks to your organization. If you choose to be cautious, Youth on Board recommends that your organization consider the following suggestions:

  • Disclose to your organization that you have young people on your board.
  • Include provisions in your Bylaws and Articles of Incorporation that state that
    your organization can elect young people to your board.
  • Discuss potential risks openly with the board of directors and your rganization’s attorneys.
  • Do not elect young people to board officer positions that have contractual authority such as the President, Vice- President, Treasurer, and Secretary.
    (Make sure to encourage young people to serve in other leadership positions.)
  • Prohibit youth board members from signing legal and financial documents such as leases and checks on behalf of the nonprofit corporation or the incorporating papers for the nonprofit organization.

Previously, Youth on Board has recommended an additional conservative approach for youth involvement, which involves counting youth and adult votes separately to ensure that youth votes do not carry, defeat, or break a tie on a motion, or count toward a quorum (unless your state’s laws dictate otherwise).

After further legal research and consideration, we believe that counting votes is unnecessary. Recording votes sends the message to young people that their votes, and therefore their opinions and leadership, do not count as much as those of adults. Many organizations have chosen not to record youth and adult votes separately for this reason and have not faced problems counting the youth and adult vote in the same manner.

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