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Engage next-gen leaders with young-professionals board


Nonprofit boards of directors often are composed of senior-level professionals, with years of seasoning and experience. But how can the next generation be groomed today, enlisting their help in broadening community support? The Better Housing Coalition in Richmond, Virginia, answered this challenge by creating a young-professionals board.

With a lot of organizations, if you look at their donor database, you see many people have been giving for 20 years, but few who are from a younger generation,” explains Sarah Fernald, resource development manager for the coalition. “So, we created this board as a way to engage the younger generation of advocates who can help us get more supporters and our name out there to a different subset of donors and other people in the community.”

Several young-professional board members and others pose with "Gingy."
Today, the 21 “young professionals”—generally about 22 years old to 40—meet monthly to develop professionally as board members and learn more about community development through speakers, as well as support the Better Housing Coalition through a variety of initiatives, primarily through fundraising.

They organize a lot of happy hour events and activities like that. The age group who attend those events is much younger than the typical audience we attract,” says Fernald.

Ali McCrickard, a sales and leasing associate for a local real estate company, has sat on the board for the last three years and is the 2018 chairperson.

“After a few years in the real estate business, I was looking for a way to involve myself in the community,” she explains. “I grew up in Richmond and just wanted a way to give back. So I started researching nonprofits in the area that could benefit from my background.”

About half of the current board members have backgrounds related to housing in some way, and the other half are more diverse, with expertise ranging from social work to health care. According to Fernald, new applicants are evaluated based on criteria such as:
  • Does the applicant's reason for applying reflect the goals and mission of the board?
  • Does his or her areas of expertise add value?
  • Considering the applicant's time commitments, does he/she have the potential to be an engaged member?
  • Does he or she represent a new voice, perspective or background that will make the board more diverse?
Terms are one-year, but can be renewed. New and returning applicants are reviewed each November.

“I have met some really awesome new friends, and I love the events we’ve been able to put on,” says McCrickard about her experience on the board. “It's so much fun seeing everything come to fruition. For example, last year we organized our first annual gingerbread challenge and we raised over $15,000. This year, it generated more than $26,000. Seeing all of the fruits of our labor come to life is pretty great.”

The “gingerbread challenge” is a signature event of the board, both in terms of community engagement and fundraising. The competition to create the most creative gingerbread houses was first conceived by a member of the Young Professionals Board three years ago. It is timed to coincide with another event, the introduction by a local brewery of its newest, sought-after Christmas beer. That allows the Penquis fundraiser to piggyback on an already-popular and well-attended affair.

Themed “holiday movies,” it has attracted 23 contestants this year, with entries from real estate firms, architecture companies, and nonprofits like the Children's Home Society and Habitat for Humanity. The net profit from this year's contest, held Nov. 4, is an estimated $23,000--raised through entry fees ($100 per team), sponsorships (14 this year, including four media partners that provide free promotion and two area banks), event T-shirts, VIP tickets to the exhibit, voting tickets (used to select the “people’s choice” award) and a silent auction of the gingerbread houses (from which two judges’ award winners were selected as well). 

“But it’s not just the money raised that’s important,” Fernald notes. “Think of the community engagement we also generate through our ‘celebrity’ judges panel, media coverage and attendance by more than 500 residents. It’s a win all around. And we couldn’t have done it without our young professionals.”

A new addition to the event promotion this year, for example, was a dedicated Instagram account that, throughout the year, showed “Gingy” the gingerbread man in various community locations as he built anticipation for this year’s event. It was a task particularly suited for young professionals.
What advice would Fernald and McCrickard offer other nonprofits wanting to launch a young-professionals board?

“You need to understand that young professionals are a group in transition,” says Fernald. “They may be starting families or moving to take a different job, for example. That's why we changed from two-year term to one. I’d say that each year, we usually have at least half return.”

McCrickard adds, “You have to get the balance just right: You want the time commitment required to be enough to be of value to both the nonprofit and the members, but not so much it impinges on their ‘paying’ jobs. If someone misses a few meetings, that's a telltale sign something's wrong. What you want are people looking forward to the meetings, like I do.”