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Under 30 and Leading an Organization

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Chris Praedel and family

We are happy to share this blog by Chris Praedel, Event and Stewardship Coordinator at Western Michigan University. Deeply involved in a variety of Kalamazoo organizations himself, Praedel highlights the benefit of young leadership within organizations. Praedel is pictured with his wife, Erin, and young son, Lincoln.

Some of the fastest growing and most innovative non-profit organizations in Kalamazoo are led by young, board members under the age of 30: Kalamazoo People's Food Co-op, Open Roads, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the Kalamazoo Literacy Council. All are growing by leaps and bounds.

That's not to say only organizations with young leaders grow and innovate. However, it goes to show that leadership does not exist solely within the confines of prolonged experience. For some, leadership is innate, a gift simmering away from a young age. For others, it requires mentorship and practice. For most of us, it probably falls somewhere in between.

More than likely, it demonstrates that these rapidly growing organizations recognize the need to address sustainability and see future human capital as one of their most precious resources. More than seeing young people solely as individuals to advise on their social media strategy, they have harnessed the potential of emerging leaders to advance their mission. Great organizations are not just asking young people to help. They are asking young people to lead.

For me, enlisting young leaders in organizations is as much about sustainability as it is about diversity of ideas. Emerging leadership is too often overlooked as part of board diversity. In my experience, more seasoned board members overlook young professionals as prospects and young people overlook their eligibility to serve.

A "pop-culture" image of a board member is someone with gray hair, power, limitless connections, and significant financial resources. So too often the seasoned board members ask people who are already over-committed in the community and miss out on strong younger lesser known leaders with the capacity to serve.

In turn, boards get big names and people with reputations and achieve little results or progress from their presence. All while young people find other outlets to utilize their passion, talent, and energy. Some of the most innovative organizations are asking around for emerging leaders with the time and abundant energy to serve.

When you want big returns on the stock market, you don't buy when stock price near its peak. A wise investor does their homework and determines a stock on the cusp of a surge. We should recruit board leadership in a similar fashion. Likewise, young leaders should find organizations on a growth trajectory and jump on board when they can make the greatest impact.

For young emerging leaders out there, I have the following advice:

  1. Don't become a couch potato during your prime. Give back and get involved in your community. Make it a lifestyle!
  2. Find an organization and board where you really believe in the mission. If you can talk about it passionately without a script, you have probably found your volunteer home.
  3. Find an organization that thrives on innovation and genuinely desires progress. Avoid an organization stuck in a perpetual rut. If it feels like a funeral service and they are reading mail at board meetings, run as fast as you can.
  4. Ask community activists and leaders for recommendations and sage local advice. It is rare that even the busiest of leaders will turn down an opportunity to grab coffee with a "young grasshopper" who desires mentorship.
  5. Ask lots of questions! Each of these questions will offer a glimpse into the health of the organization. Be sure to ask if the organization has a "working board" or a "governing board" structure. Where does the organization receive its funding? Does it depend on a large grant or does it have diversified funding sources? What is expected of board members? How is the board's relationship with the staff leadership?
  6. Don't be afraid to express interest in serving on a board. Don't underestimate what you can bring to the table as a young leader. Make an inventory of expertise and relevant experience.
  7. Become a ferocious learner. As soon as you join the board, learn as much as you can; whenever you can. Meet with the Executive Director and fellow board members, volunteer at events, willingly join a committee or two, and ask for materials to read.

The reality is every veteran board leader started somewhere. Board leadership is an amazing way to help shape the future of an organization making a real difference in your community. And the best part is that your involvement is far more than just filling a seat.

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