When you think of a board of trustees, what image comes to mind? A middle-aged white man?
Well, that’s grounded in some truth. A 2017 study looking at charity trusteeships in the UK found that of 3,500 trustees, 92% of them were white, 64% were male, and their average age was 61.
We work in a sector where our focus is to help people by addressing society’s problems. If we’re going to work well, we need solutions from all members of society – young people included.
In England and Wales, around 12% of the adult population are aged 18-24 – yet this group represents less than 1% of trustees.
But why does this matter and what are the tangible benefits of even having a young person in the room? As VSO’s new youth adviser to its International Board, I’m finding out the answers.This month, I caught up with three youth trustees from across the sector to hear more about their experience in positions of governance and what they’re doing to amplify the youth voice.
Meet the trustees
Larissa Kennedy is 20 and Trustee of the British Youth Council (BYC). She’s been in the role for four months, having previously been the UK’s representative to the Global Secretariat at Youth for Change. An avid campaigner and spokesperson for youth and gender equality, good governance is close to her heart.
“There’s nothing better than seeing something that you wrote on a piece on paper tangibly impacting the lives of young people. I wanted to take the opportunity to work with an organisation that truly believes in the power of young people,” Larissa explains.
Anthony Ford-Shubrook is 31. After interning at inclusive education and disability rights charity AbleChildAfrica, Anthony’s continuous campaigning led him to become its Youth Ambassador in 2015 and Chair of their Youth Council in 2017.
“We’re not here to provide the technical details but to give the lived experience,” he tells me. “Just being in the room is a powerful statement in itself.”
Aamirah Patel, 25, is a Young Trustee at ICS partner Restless Development. She’s about to leave her post, having held the role for two years after supporting Restless by volunteering and campaigning.
“Just as we work to ensure there is diversity in the workplace, we need diversity at the board level to remain relevant as organisations moving forward. I believe in the authenticity and vision of Restless, and their support to build young people as change makers.”
Why’s it even important?
Young people are often slated for being apathetic and self-absorbed ‘snowflakes’. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Now more than ever, we’re actively changing social norms – and it’s time our efforts are recognised alongside the more ‘traditional’ leaders in our society.
It’s young people that will be the most affected by future economic, environmental, technological and political threats. By not participating in all parts of civic life, how can we realistically shape a world we see fit to live in without having a say in how we get there?
“The current political climate is such a divisive one,” says Larissa. “But having meaningful youth engagement in governance means that we are on a path to giving young people‘s thoughts and ideas recognition.”
For Anthony, being able to represent yourself is key. “I want to beat the stereotypes of disability around the world and I believe young people can make that change happen. By promoting inclusiveness in governance, I can ensure the input of children with disabilities in all environments.”
“I think youth voices in governance spaces are not only important but necessary,” argues Aamirah. “The charity sector has a lot of work to do to ensure the people that they are looking to empower consistently have a seat and a voice at the table.”
What does the future look like?
So how do we effectively build and improve youth participation in decision-making? Learning about an organisation and fully understanding the mechanics of governance can be a challenge – but one that’s necessary to help young people communicate effectively. We’re not here just to fill a gap.
It’s something that Larissa feels strongly about. “Being on a board isn’t tokenistic in the slightest. We all have different areas of expertise that we bring together in order to ensure good governance.”
“The participation of ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘primary actors’ in decision making about their own futures is key to sustainability and effectiveness,” explains Anthony. “The same thinking should be applied throughout the organisation starting from the top. When a young person is included, the benefits go beyond them to their family, neighbours and wider community.”
Larissa agrees: “As a sector, I think we’re moving in the right direction. We’re recognising that true youth engagement requires investment, energy and capacity building. I hope that we can continue the momentum of this cultural shift towards young people as decision-makers – not just as beneficiaries.”
The youth are participating in civil society more than ever before. It’s a big step to creating a better society. But organisations need to be willing to take more of a risk in investing and believing in young people.
Greater diversity in decision-making leads to greater diversity in solutions.