How to Get Young People on Board – not Bored

Written by Tim Harte – PDA VIC Director to Get Young People on Board – not Bored

As a Disabled Peoples Organisation (DPO), Physical Disability Australia (PDA) lives the ethos of ‘nothing about us, without us’ – people with disabilities informing advocacy and leading the change to enable every Australian living with a physical disability to realise their full potential. 

Within PDA, I see the value of lived-experience with every decision we make and the real-world outcomes achieved through our advocacy. With charities, government bodies and corporations(entities) that deliver services for and interact with, marginalised and underrepresented communities, it is both an ethical obligation and a practical necessity for the work of these entities to be informed and shaped by members of these communities, and for meaningful participation of community members to occur within decision-making structures. 

Commonly, meaningful participation within decision-making structures of entities involves reference groups, comprised of members of a marginalised community, specifically focused on aspects of the entity’s interactions with a specific target group. Reference groups are great for informing operational aspects (of entities) e.g. advising on service delivery. However, input from reference groups is not sufficient. It is critical for effective, appropriate and inclusive decision-making that people with disabilities are within high-level, decision-making structures (Boards & Board committees) & staff members, with relevant, lived-experience, are employed by the entity to ensure recommendations and input from reference groups are implemented and given value in the entity’s strategic priorities. 

As a young, disabled person who serves on 3 Boards, I am part of the change involving people from marginalised and underrepresented communities, with lived-experience, being part of and making a difference through active participation in high-level, decision-making structures within entities. Being part of the change is not an easy experience. It takes grit, a thick-skin, patience, determination and dedication. More focus is given to getting people with lived-experience on Boards, but the next, and equally important, step is change and action within entities to ensure people from marginalised and underrepresented communities can meaningfully participate and contribute within the Board environment. It is the challenge to ensure the voices of young and marginalised people are heard and considered within Boards, and we are not left feeling frustrated, undervalued and bored by inaction.

My experience, as a young person on Boards & Board Committees in a diverse range of sectors, has gotten me thinking about what it takes to get young people meaningfully involved in governance. Not just tokenistically to meet some predefined quota or societal expectation, but in a meaningful, valuable and respectful way. My recommendations for entities (charities, government bodies & the private sector) to implement to ensure young people on their Boards are supported to meaningfully participate and contribute, and some recommendations to young people to ponder when considering applying for Board positions, are itemised below. 

Support

Properly supported, appropriately experienced young people can learn greatly from Board service and considerably contribute to informed decision-making within the Board environment. 

For entities:

a) Buddying: Many Boards ‘buddy up’ new (young) Board members with existing Board members to educate them about Board processes & conduct, and most importantly to support them to feel more secure within the Board environment and enhance their ability to contribute. Things to consider include:

i) Buddying is often a short-term, ‘on-Boarding’ mechanism to provide initial support for new Board members rather than a continued, support mechanism. It is important for young Board members to have a buddy acting as a support for the duration of their time on a Board. 

ii) Allocation of buddy partners should never be done without discussion with the young Board member and ideally their buddy should be their choice. Ideally, following their first Board meeting, young Board members can be asked who they would like to buddy with. Prior to allocation the Board Chairs/Presidents should act as a support. 

iii) Buddy allocation should not be regarded as permanent. Young Board members get to know different Board members better throughout their time on a Board and may benefit from support of different Board members for different matters. Also, Board members may change, hence, buddy allocation needs to be flexible. 

iv) Some Boards refer to buddying as mentoring, which can suggest a paternalistic relationship which may unintentionally intensify the power dynamic imbalance between existing and new young Board members, reducing open conversation and reducing the benefits of buddying. 

b) Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are confidential external counselling programs offered to employees by employers. Not all entities have EAPs. However, many (particularly those involved in service delivery or areas involving direct interaction with the public) do have EAPs. Board members need to be able to access EAPs, yet many Board members of charities serve voluntarily and cannot access EAPs as they are not regarded as staff. Board members, during their first term, will more than likely discuss psychologically distressing matters or be in psychologically distressing situations while serving on a Board. It is important, both for the health and wellbeing of Board members and Board culture, that Board members are supported through an EAP to confidentially deal with the impact of such experiences with qualified healthcare professionals. For young Board members, who often have small and less established support networks, EAP access is a necessity.  

c) Training: Training is a major part of supporting young Board members. Training has been covered further under the capacity building recommendations. 

For young people: 

a) Personal support: To ensure young people’s wellbeing, they should not serve on Boards unless they have a stable close support network. Young people need at least 2 people they have known for 2+ years, who have supported them in the past, to support them during their Board service. The reality of being on Boards, as a young person, is that it is not a smooth process. There will be ups and downs, and sometimes nights (after meetings) when you cannot sleep. For your own well-being you need people who know you and can reliably support you. I am lucky to have 2-4 people (2 family and 2 friends), with similar political views & shared values, who support me. 

Capacity building (training)

Training serves to build the capacity of young Board members to contribute and build the capacity of all Board members to implement best practice governance and create a safe, efficient, and effective Board environment. I prefer the term ‘capacity building’ over ‘training’ as it acknowledges the exisiting capacity within each Board member. Everyone has skills, experiences and expertise from their life, work & other voluntary roles. Capacity building needs to recognise this and build on existing capacity and strengths.

For entities:

a) Assessing existing skills: Quantification of Board member’s current skills and knowledge areas is the first step to building the capacity of the Board and Board members through tailored & relevant capacity building. Commonly, skills matrixes, sometimes extended to include key knowledge areas of an entity’s work, are used to quantify (measure) different skills areas and identify weaknesses or areas where capacity can be enhanced within the Board team. 

i) Quantification: To be effective, a skills matrix must be designed to prevent ambiguity in skill (or knowledge) quantification. Clear and detailed guidance must be provided around the meaning of a low, medium or high rating in a skill/knowledge area. Skills matrix quantification needs to take a similar approach to key selection criteria rankings in job applicant short listing. Skill matrix scoring scales need to be at a minimum 1 (no knowledge) to 10 (this is my profession); 1-3 rankings are meaningless. Scores need to be clearly connected with levels of understanding and proficiency -e.g. 5 (I watched a webinar on this topic), 6 (I went to a conference or did a short course on this topic), 7 (I have done an elective at University on this topic), 8-10 (I am professionally qualified in this area and have worked or work in this area). 

ii) Use of skills matrixes: The skills matrix should be used by Board members/Chairs/Training Committees to identify and plan tailored, relevant training for individual Board members, as well as, identifying weaknesses in professional experience within the Board that may be remediated through co-opted Board members.

b)  Sourcing training: Quality, professional capacity building is essential. 

i) Inhouse training: Inhouse training is training performed by staff or Board members and has limited application and benefits. An over-reliance on inhouse training can create an unhealthy power dynamic between Board & staff members – particularly young Board members. This can also, unintentionally, recycle current, inappropriate, Board culture and practice and perpetuate unhealthy power dynamics; in turn preventing positive improvement and real, continuing professional development for every Board member. Wherever possible, external agencies should be sourced for well-planned capacity building.

ii) Sourcing appropriate capacity building: Separating the ‘waste of money’ webinars, conferences and courses from ‘value for time & money’ capacity building options can be time-consuming and difficult. I have found personal recommendations are best. I have done 4 different governance webinars/short courses – 2 free & 2 paid and would only recommend two of them for their content, relevance, cost and value. It is not difficult to find free training for charity & community organisation Board members, but it is difficult to secure a free booking with short notice. Subscribing to alerts from the Australian Scholarships Foundation, which provides regular updates on free offerings from leading training providers, is an excellent way to find relevant opportunities for Board members. 

c) Relevant Capacity Building: After assessing existing skills, relevant tailored training for individual board members should be identified. Last year on a Board skills matrix, I scored lowest in the knowledge area of ‘Housing security’ and in the skill area of ‘Finance & accounting’. In response to these scores I went to an online conference on the topic of homelessness & housing security, and completed an elective subject at university on accounting, building my capacity in both these areas. 

Identification of relevant training opportunities should be a formalised, transparent process within Boards and should combine information gathered from assessing existing skills with preferences of individual Board members to create a mutually agreed capacity building plan and schedule. It is important that training should not be onerous and can fit in with existing commitments and career plans of young Board members. The elective I undertook last year, counted as a credit point in my course (i.e. I was going to do the work anyway as it was relevant, and contributed to my career plans).

d) Tracking & Feedback: Tracking training completed by Board members is important to ensure accountability of mutually-agreed commitments, evaluate capacity building of training (i.e. how does training result in enhanced skill matrix) and, most importantly, to get feedback on completed training so training providers/courses can be recommended (or not) for Board members in the future. Due to the constant requirement for upskilling & refresher training and for building and maintaining the capacity of the Board, it is best if training is tracked in specific time brackets (e.g. Jan-June 2021) for each Board member.

For young people: 

a) Find your own capacity building: Some Boards will view training as an annual webinar for the whole Board. For young Board members, who commonly have different skill & knowledge gaps to the rest of the Board, this approach is not ideal. Don’t be scared to search and apply for your own training opportunities. A lot of conferences offer free scholarships and free high-quality training opportunities are also available. Apply early for these opportunities as spots fill up fast. 

General recommendations for young people: 

a) Know the commitment you are making: Serving on a Board takes time. Make sure you read through the position description of the Board role, note down the meeting frequency, committee obligations and other time commitments if stated. For me, the time it takes to thoroughly read Board papers has been the largest time commitment. Some Boards will have a regular amount of work, 20 pages of reading/meeting, others are more variable (20-60+ pages of reading/meeting).  Generally, for Board members serving in their first year, the time commitment of being on a Board is 20% greater than the amount stated in a position description.  

In conclusion, don’t be afraid to put your hat in the ring, but be realistic about your current capacity and experience, be prepared to undertake additional training to build your capacity and be prepared for a lot bigger time commitment than is suggested.  As a DPO, PDA is a great example of valuing the voices and input of people with diverse lived-experience. PDA actively incorporates intersectional lived-experience in decision-making and ensures young people are listened to and valued.

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