Give, Get or Get Off Youth Program Boards

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I have often heard it politely put that board members for youth-serving agencies give of their “time, talent and treasures.” In many cases, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Too often, board members want to lend an agency the use of their names but balk at going to meetings. Protected in a boardroom bubble because of their status, these board members mostly come around at holiday party and talent show time. They are hard put to write a donation check themselves.

Many youth programs scramble when the annual report is due to get each board member to give something, so that the organization does not look bad to its funders. It’s time for these board members to “give, get or get off” the boards.

In this country, socialites and wives of city fathers have long been tapped to serve on nonprofit boards, dating to the turn of the last century. Back then, every great American city was erecting commercial hubs as far as the eye could see. Leading citizens wanted to demonstrate a more enlightened capitalism by establishing vocational and farm schools, orphanages and foundling homes to ameliorate the unintended consequences of such growth.

The board memberships were traditionally handed down from one generation to the next, in a practice that continues today. Sadly, tax laws have recently changed to allow smaller deductions for people at higher income levels. The children of wealthy families, who have inherited the mantle of serving on boards, get less financial benefit than their elders did for making charitable contributions. The role that their grandparents played in making generous gifts has finally “aged out.”

Another problem: These wealthy scions, coming from another culture and background than those served by our youth programs, still drive across town to do their duty as board members. That is not healthy.

What if board members were required to live in the neighborhoods served by youth programs? Rich, everyday life connections in sports leagues, grocery stores and churches would vastly strengthen how board members understand the challenges of the programs. By living there, they could mobilize better to take action to solve problems with the youth.

Do we really need elites on the boards anymore? Empowerment would be far more direct and effective if a majority of the board members were the parents and the youth themselves. Who better to guide than the people who stand to benefit or lose from program’s impact?

And what about the youth workers? Low wages and high turnover could easily be a thing of the past if direct care staffers who do the work get the chance to become “employee owners” of their agencies. Youth workers would invest even more deeply in the organization by serving on the board with the parents and the youth.

It’s time to leave old-fashioned nonprofit structures behind for new social enterprises that allow us, through limited liability corporations and employee-owned cooperatives, to blend reasonable profit with social mission.

The youth-serving program of the future would look more like the famous cooperatives such as the REI outdoor store, which returns a share of the profits to its customers every year, or the organic stores that offer a discount in return for a membership that requires volunteering regular hours every week.

We should be operating our youth services by buying up and renovating whole blocks of a neighborhood, using the entrepreneurial help of the youth and the families in whose hands we leave ownership.

I see a day when parents, youth and youth workers have an equal share and vested interest in organizing and operating our nonprofits. We have got to stop selling our souls to the elite and start doing business for the future. As social enterprises, our youth programs can generate more opportunities and play a vital role as an essential building block for a strong local economy.

Andy Munoz is vice president for the AED Center of Youth Development and a certified youth worker.