Words by Sanaya, 29 VIC
Why is it important to have young people on boards?
Why is it important to have women in the workplace?
Why is it important for First Nations People to have the right to vote or the right to self-determination on their own lands and waters?
The same basic question has been asked so many times throughout history.
Why should power be extended to all people?
The answer is very simple. As the late and great Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Logic extends that principle to other underrepresented groups.
So I’m not going to prosecute a time-old and hopefully soon irrelevant question about why boards should appoint young people. Although I will note that research (by the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors) shows that in 2015 the average age of non-executive directors in ASX100 companies was 61.9 years. Women were, on average, nearly six years younger than their male colleagues. Unfortunately, credible data on the composition of non-profit boards is not readily available.
Putting the stats aside, I want to make the case for why you – as a young person — should seek out opportunities to serve on boards. Talking to people about boards often reveals that little is understood or known about their role in our society. Even for those who work in organisations who are governed by them, boards are often thought to be like black boxes, in goes information and out come decisions.
I see three reasons why you should pay attention to the work that boards do and the people who sit on them, and consider taking a seat yourself.
1. Serving on a board can be an impactful way to contribute to an organisation or a cause you care about.
A year ago, I joined the Board of Climate for Change. It is a small but mighty grassroots non-profit that aims to create the social climate for effective action on climate change. We enable individuals to host conversations about climate change with their friends and family, facilitated by our trained volunteers in a structured and non-judgemental way. This approach is based on social science research into how people process information, and it works.
Our recent impact report showed that 99 per cent of those surveyed said they learnt something new and 77 per cent said that they were influenced to positively change at least one behaviour. This data validates what we do and motivates me personally.
So why did I apply for this Board? In early 2019, I made a conscious decision to pursue voluntary and paid work solely focused on the climate crisis. It was the 10 year anniversary of Black Saturday, and it hit me hard that we hadn’t moved far enough to safeguard our future on this planet. I applied to volunteer on this Board specifically because I believed strongly in the organisation’s evidence based theory of change. Where once I sat with a feeling of despair, I now feel useful pouring my time and energy into an organisation that has an impact on a cause I care about.
2. Boards are places where you can learn.
A lot. At a minimum, you must learn about how to provide effective governance, leadership, and stewardship for your organisation. And more than that, you will learn how to collegiately discuss, debate and disagree with colleagues to distil the collective wisdom of the group into an effective outcome for the organisation. You will learn to prioritise and synthesise information to help senior leaders make decisions; because as a senior leader yourself, you will come to understand what you need to be confident in the decisions that you make. These are all skills that will serve you in whatever you do.
3. Finally and most importantly, boards are places where decisions are made. That’s why young people need to take a seat at the table. Boards wield immense power and carry commensurate responsibility. I had never been on a board before Climate for Change, but I applied because another Board member recognised that my work experience would be relevant and encouraged me to apply, and for that I am grateful.
I was appointed because I conveyed my strong affinity for the work that we do and the experience I could bring. And experience matters. It may be the barrier that first-time directors will need to overcome, but it is not insurmountable. Identify the sectors you are interested in and the organisations with which your values align. Learn about how they operate and the experience that they value. Think about what gaps you may have and look for ways to fill them. Identify the people you could learn from and ask them to mentor you to help you achieve your goals.
It’s not always easy and approaching someone for help can be daunting. But think about what you would do if someone asked you for advice or help — most people want to help others, so it’s always worth asking.
There are also professional development courses that can help you build skills. They won’t always be financially viable but it’s worth your time to look at scholarship opportunities that are available. Australian Scholarships Foundation is one place to start.
Boards are only as effective as the people who sit on them. If you want a say on the direction of an organisation, are willing to be held accountable for its decisions, and think you have something to offer, don’t be held back by your age. Apply to join the board.
Sanaya is Chief Strategy Officer at Beyond Zero Emissions. She is on the Board of Climate for Change and Chair of its Governance and Risk Subcommittee. Sanaya also volunteers as a mentor for Altiorem.
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Illustration by Aileen, You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc