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Akron-area nonprofit boards are getting an infusion of youth

A recent effort in Akron aimed at getting young professionals more involved with the boards of area nonprofits has found what it needs most to succeed: a surplus of smart, engaged, young people who are ready and willing to lead their community forward.

“We had to expand our very first class,” said Elizabeth Winter, regional vice president of BVU: The Center for Nonprofit Excellence, which supports nonprofits and promotes business volunteerism. 

BVU was tapped by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to develop a program called YP Leader Corps, which began operations last fall. Its mission is to bring more young professionals into board and committee positions at nonprofits working in and around the city. BVU figured it would try to fill an initial class of 15 candidates – a number Winter said was both manageable and, perhaps, optimistic.

The first class last year had 21 members, and demand was so strong, others were still turned away, Winter said. This year’s first class had another 16, and Winter said it’s already looking like a fall class will have more than 15 people.

Eventually, BVU likely will get class size to a consistent 15 candidates, with two classes a year. But demand is stronger than anticipated among Akron’s millennials, Winter said.

“It’s amazing. It’s wonderful that we have so many people that want to be involved in the community,” Winter said.

And the area’s employers are supportive of their efforts —  mentoring young volunteers, helping them with flexible schedules and encouraging them — in part because many employers know that volunteerism is important to young professionals.

“They’re looking for companies that are going to be good corporate citizens, and they want to be supported in their efforts,” Winter said. 

A leadership void

It’s a good thing that Akron’s young professionals are responding to BVU’s efforts, too, because the area’s nonprofits always have difficulty filling their boards and committees. Winter said she works with more than 100 nonprofits, and at any given time, about 70% of them are looking for a board member.

“We will never fully meet the demand,” she said.

But the program is making a difference. Nonprofits that have worked with the YP Leader Corps said they’ve been able to find and bring aboard valuable new board members. And volunteers are finding rewarding opportunities.

“I usually give our graduates their choice of between five and seven boards,” Winter said.

That means would-be board members can work with a nonprofit that is aligned with their values or even with causes they’ve already adopted – and use their skill sets to their best advantage.

For example, Cindy Vizmeg is manager of financial planning and analysis for Signet Jewelers in Akron. She wanted to work with an organization involved with children and education. BVU gave her five or six choices, based on her skills and preferences, and she ultimately chose to work with Junior Achievement of North Central Ohio. She joined the board this year.

“It was a great experience, learning about it, and then being able to get connected to a board and being able to give back to the community,” said Vizmeg, who has long volunteered with organizations such as the American Cancer Society and with her church.

While the training was not overly demanding, Vizmeg said, the YP Leader Corps program did a good job of preparing her by teaching her about the responsibilities of board members, how boards are structured and governed, and how they oversee the organizations they direct. 

Promising results

Nonprofits, too, say they’ve been pleased with the results from working with YP Leader Corps. Julie M. Johnson, president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Western Reserve, said she’s constantly on the hunt for new board members. She recently got one – University of Akron director of athletics development Anthony Henderson Sr. – through BVU.

“He’s been amazing. One of the things we specifically like about Anthony, which BVU helped us with, is we’re always looking for people with a development and marketing background – and he has both,” Johnson said.

She also likes the fact that the program helps reach out to new audiences of potential board members.

“One of the things we liked about the YP Leader Corps was they’re all between 25 and 40, and we were looking to diversify our board,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she hopes the program continues, because she’d like to carry on using it to recruit board members or to fill advisory committees.

She seems likely to get that chance, too. The Knight Foundation recently gave BVU a small amount of additional funding to begin a mentorship program associated with YP Leader Corps. The foundation has been pleased with what it has seen from YP Leader Corps so far, said Kyle Kutuchief, Knight’s program director for Akron.

“It’s going very well. We’re interested in the attraction and retention of talent to Akron, and programs like the one BVU is doing helps people discover the town outside of their work and home,” said Kutuchief. “Then there’s the board matching piece, helping them find a board where they can serve. This is all part of a process of making them sticky to Akron.”

Like Winter, Kutuchief said he’s constantly impressed by how engaged many Akron young professionals are. “It’s what makes Akron great,” he said.

But he warns that without nurturing, that resource might not be enough.

“We do have a good core, but we always have to be mindful of expanding that pipeline. Summit County has half a million people in it, and the BVU program has 30 slots a year,” Kutuchief said.


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