A Shadow Board Can Help Your Association Become More Relevant to Young Professionals

Despite the recruitment and retention efforts of associations, two-thirds (66%) of members are still Boomers and Gen X, a three-point increase over last year. You would’ve expected this percentage to decrease since Boomers are 58 to 76 years old and a good chunk of them are probably retired by now. Millennial (ages 27 to 42) membership held steady at 21%, per MGI research, but Gen Z (ages 26 and younger) fell to 6% from 8%, the wrong direction again.

It's no wonder associations are concerned about engaging younger members in volunteer leadership—the #2 barrier to success in association governance, according to Association Laboratory research. If you wish to increase the number of young members in your leadership pipeline, you need their perspective when making decisions about volunteering, programs, and marketing.

If young members aren’t considered ready for primetime governance—board and committee roles—invite them to serve on a ‘shadow board.’ A Harvard Business Review article describes shadow boards at corporations like Gucci, where, since 2015, a shadow board of Millennials has met regularly with senior management to work on strategic initiatives. Their insights have “served as a wakeup call for the executives.”

shadow board

What shadow boards bring to corporations

The stories about shadow boards at Gucci, Prada, Accor, Interbrand, and KPMG International are overwhelmingly positive. “Shadow boards… contribute feedback, opinions and ideas about a brand's product development, marketing, and online experience from a digital native perspective.” They’ve helped companies improve their ability to respond to changing market conditions.

Shadow boards serve as a bridge between senior management and rising talent. Executives hear feedback and ideas from a different perspective. Shadow board members challenge assumptions, conventional wisdom, and internal orthodoxies. Companies report that shadow boards have driven cultural change and digital transformation. Sounds promising, doesn’t it?

How associations could benefit from a ‘shadow’ professional development committee

Based on the corporate experience, you can imagine what a shadow board of young members could bring to an association. But we’re going to imagine something different—a shadow professional development (PD) committee or, if the word ‘shadow’ doesn’t appeal, an advisory PD council.

An advisory group of young members can help you understand the specific needs of professionals entering and moving up in your industry. If you combine what you learn from this group and their peers with what you find out from an employer advisory council about existing skills gaps, your programs can focus on the skills and knowledge that will help both young professionals and their employers succeed.

A shadow or advisory PD council can also advise on:

•    Career support and resources
•    Learning pathways
•    Membership and learning subscription options
•    Certificate programs, including microcredentials and digital badges
•    Learning content: format, length, and frequency
•    Virtual and in-person conference experience

If you plan to invest in a new learning management system (LMS), invite younger members and customers to a focus group where you discuss learning experience preferences, program features, and system functionality. For example, how important are online communities, email reminders, or Zoom integration for breakouts? Look at your current LMS provider’s roadmap with this group. Does the future direction of your LMS align with the professional development vision you’ve been discussing with your advisory/shadow council?

A shadow/advisory group can also help you improve marketing campaigns. In a recent ASAE Collaborate discussion, consultant Glenn Tecker wrote about an association that was disappointed by the results of a marketing campaign targeted at young professionals. Unfortunately, they based their campaign messages on “commonly accepted generalizations about the generation targeted.” Would they have made those mistaken assumptions if they had consulted with an advisory group?

Find out how and where you should focus marketing campaigns targeted at the younger audience.

•    What problems do they have?
•    What resources and information do they need?
•    What skills do they want to develop?
•    Where would content marketing and advertising catch their attention?
•    What do they search for? What questions do they have?

You might learn you should post content and advertise on LinkedIn, offer advice and advertise on Reddit, or advertise on Google—or take a completely different approach.

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What you need to launch a shadow board or advisory council for professional development

First, you must make a business case for its existence. What problems will a shadow group solve? How will it help your association fulfill its missions and achieve its goals? Research corporate shadow boards to learn about their positive impact.

An advisory council must have executive sponsorship and participation, so their findings and recommendations are not tossed aside. If they don’t have a meaningful impact, the effort will seem patronizing.

The council should have a documented charge from your association’s board of directors. The council’s purpose, responsibilities, available resources, staff/member boundaries, and parameters within which it operates must be clear.

Announce an open application process for council appointments. You want to reach beyond those who are already part of the governance network. Select members from diverse groups representing different demographics, positions, and ages/career stages.

While researching this post, I only found one association example of a young shadow board: the Event & Visual Communication Association (EVCOM) in the UK. Their shadow board comprises filmmakers and events professionals between the ages of 18 and 25 years old. This board is “compiling ideas and suggestions around content, events, inclusivity and youth engagement” and is “helping us to make this association and the wider sector a place for young and diverse people.”

A shadow board or advisory council is a powerful way to show young members you’re committed to giving them a voice and listening to them, not making assumptions about them. Together, you can create the association experiences and programs they want and need. By partnering with them, you earn their trust and prove your association is heading into the future, not bound to the past.

young professionals
member engagement
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