Youth Governance: The Effective Listening Issue

Provocation Papers

According to the Young Trustees Movement, less than 3% of charity trustees are under 30. Here, Matt Wilde discusses how can we enquire into the possibility of embracing the skills and experiences of younger trustees.

What would it take to embrace younger trustees?

How about this statistic: less than 3% of charity trustees are under 30, according to the Young Trustees Movement[1]. A report by the Charity Commission titled ‘A Breath of Fresh Air - Young People as Charity Trustees’, also highlighted that the mean age of a charity trustee is 57.[2]

Yet so many charities have strategic aims to support young people. How can we enquire into the possibility of embracing the skills and experiences of younger trustees? How can we shine a light on their skills and assets, and what impact could that have on your organisation?

The benefits of including younger trustees

There are so many benefits of having younger trustees on boards. Young people can bring a more diverse range of perspectives, skills and experience. Their involvement can help boards learn more about the interests of the communities or beneficiaries that the organisation supports. But above all, young people can truly embrace the potential of our hyper connected world.

We live in a world where information used to be powered exclusively through classrooms and training. But now that same level of knowledge has become instantly available online, to anybody with an interest in any given subject. Young people especially have never known a world without on-demand access to all information at their fingertips. They’ve grown up surrounded by YouTube and Google, and as a result they have always been able to recognise, filter through information and realise anything they are really passionate about.

This has shaped how they see the world and what they can achieve. Young people can lead by example online, creating content and starting businesses themselves, and they can monetize their ideas and passions in a way that I don’t think was happening even ten or twenty years ago.

Have you heard of Brittany McMillan? She was active on Tumblr when she found posts about a series of LGBTQ teen suicides. This inspired her to take action by asking people to wear purple, the colour of spirit, and to come together to stand up to bullying and support LGBTQ youth through an annual event, “Spirit Day”. She has influenced corporates, celebrities, sports teams and non-profits all over the world to show their support for LGBTQ youth. All before her 20th birthday.

In the words of George the Poet: “Untapped potential is unlocked ability, hidden wisdom and unsung possibility".

What does this mean for a board? Young people have different lived experiences having grown up in a technologically driven world. They communicate in different ways, are socially conscious and can build momentum about a topic or issue rapidly online. This can create opportunities for boards to be agile in decision-making. Young people have fresh ideas and fresh perspectives that might not have been influenced by years of working in certain systems or structures. Sometimes not knowing all the negative consequences of something is positive, because we can take on the approach of trying and seeing what happens, rather than closing down ideas from the beginning.

Younger trustees can support boards to creatively respond to issues that are reflective of the communities they work with. This might include exploring new ways for the organisation to communicate its purpose online, to reach its stakeholders, or to navigate digital programming.

How to embrace the skills of younger trustees

There is one tool we can all develop, that will help boards to embrace the skills of younger trustees: effective listening. This might sound simple, but in my experience, it is the root of all engagement with young people. Good quality listening by institutions or people with influence can demonstrate that you value young people and are willing to allow them to take the lead.

I don’t mean getting young people in a room, asking them to share their thoughts and using them as decoration at the right moment. I mean authentically wanting to engage in dialogue with young people at every level of the decision-making process. Taking the time to delve into their ideas and opinions, trusting that they are well informed, and actually acting on them.

Wisdom is knowledge through experience, not age. The experience that young people have acquired growing up in a technologically driven world is vastly different to people who grew up without access to the internet, as we know it today. In 2018, Bernard Marr (IBM) reported that 90% of the world’s data was generated in the last two years, and that Google now processes more than 40,000 searches every second - 3.5 billion searches a day [3]. Young people are able to utilise this vast amount of information to further their ideas, projects or learning. Whilst this definition of ‘experience’ is not how we traditionally would have viewed it, it is important to consider when individuals are tempted to dismiss someone’s ideas based on their age. There is no place for age discrimination in the 21st century.

So, how can leaders listen better? It starts with trusting young people’s experience, ideas and opinions. Then actively demonstrating how you will act on these and acknowledge young people as leaders in their own right.

The end result will be boards which are fit for purpose, which better understand the digital lives that young people are living, and can make more informed decisions which reflect the needs of their beneficiaries.


[1] Young Trustees Movement. (2020). Less Than 3% of Charity Trustees are Under 30. Available: Last accessed 1st Feb 2021.

[2] Charity Commission. (2010). A Breath of Fresh Air, Young People as Charity Trustees. Available: Last accessed 1st Feb 2021.

[3] Bernard Marr. (2018). How Much Data Do We Create Every Day? The Mind-Blowing Stats Everyone Should Read. Available: Last accessed 1st Feb 2021.