How do you set up a great youth board?

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Insights from Listening Fund partners on Youth Boards and Advisory Groups

By Claudia Elliot, Collective Discovery

We have been exploring the many ways youth sector organisations, and others, can increase their accountability to young people – listening to them in order to serve them better, and improve their organisation’s impact. Youth boards and advisory groups are one of the better-known and more popular mechanisms used to listen to young people – providing a platform for young people to express their experiences, opinions, and concerns. 

Recently, we had an insightful meeting with Listening Fund partners, where we explored the topic of how organisations can effectively listen to young people through youth steering committees, youth or shadow boards, and advisory groups. Here, we will share the valuable insights gained during the meeting, highlighting key learnings and some thought-provoking questions for organisations considering how to become more accountable to young people, or already running youth boards.

Clarify the purpose:

  • One recurring theme in our discussion was the importance of being clear about the purpose of establishing a youth board. Clearly defining the objectives and desired outcomes of a youth board will enable you to design appropriate structures and strategies, and also be clear with the youth board members about their role, and set expectations around the kind of influence or impact they may have.
  • Equally, providing direction for the young people’s contribution can be useful, particularly to ensure they can feed in to the issues the organisation or main board is working on and recognise impact. One organisation shared their experience of suggestion 1-2 topics they would like the youth board’s input on at each meeting, which were then presented to the organisation’s main board.

Prioritise quality over quantity:

  • It is important to prioritise the quality of how your youth board can function and be listened to over the number of young people involved, or regularity of the meetings. Instead of focusing on having a large youth board that meets regularly, organisations should emphasise meaningful engagement and active participation. To encourage appetite to join, and confident engagement in their youth board, one Fund partner helps young people become comfortable with team-building activities and discussions on smaller issues with peers, so that some then feel more confident to transition to more serious and professional settings.

There’s no ‘right way’ to run a youth board, steering group or ambassador program.

  • We learned that youth boards meet in different ways in different organisations – some meet quarterly, while others meet twice a month. Some have the same group of young people, and for others, attendees change. Some have 10 people on them, others have 4. There’s no one right format for a youth board, steering committee or ambassadorship. What might work for one organisation or set of young people may not work for another. 

Flexibility and adaptability are valuable

  • There was wide agreement that flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness in the structure and functioning of a youth board or other group helps cater to the diverse needs and preferences of a group of young people. Each young person may require different meeting frequencies, levels of formality, and methods of engagement. Designing in flexibility ensures that a range of young people’s voices are consistently heard, without sidelining those with more needs or barriers to participation, and without impacting negatively on the young people’s lives. 

Build trust:

  • Establishing trust forms the bedrock of collaboration with, and listening to, young people. Many participants emphasised that young people often feel unheard and powerless in society, making it essential to create a safe space where their voices are genuinely listened to and respected if we want to hear what they have to say. Building trust cannot be done overnight, and needs to be given time and thought. One participant shared how their organisation, focused on working with young people in the prison system, gradually built relationships and trust with a group of four young adults, who now form a ‘Champions’ board.

Reciprocity and support:

  • The principle of reciprocity is vital in engaging young people in youth boards. Organisations should consider not only what they want to get from establishing a youth board, but also how the young people will benefit from participating. This could include mentorship, life coaching, skill development opportunities, and / or payment. This will ensure young people feel valued, and are more likely to stay engaged.

In addition to these tips, the group also posited some questions:

What does good communication between the youth board and main board look like?

  • Establishing effective communication and collaboration between youth board members and the main board of trustees can sometimes be challenging. It is important to create a space for dialogue where young people feel safe to discuss issues and exchange ideas with adults. It may be that organisations consider how to move from youth-only spaces towards opportunities for intergenerational dialogue to foster better understanding, cooperation, and shared decision-making between young people and others.
  • In many instances, the board asks for the opinion or input of the youth board on specific issues or questions. In one organisation, the chair of the youth board meets with the main board of trustees – going to meetings, but not voting. 

What mechanisms can be put in place to ensure diverse voices are heard?

  • Ensuring diversity and inclusivity within youth boards is essential to capture a wide range of perspectives and experiences. Organisations need to actively consider how they are enabling the participation of marginalised and underrepresented young people,such as those from minority ethnic backgrounds, neurodiverse young people, and those from LGBTQ+ communities or economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Exploring methods to ensure a diverse board, and maintaining a welcoming and inclusive space where all voices are valued will lead to more comprehensive and representative decision-making.

How can organisations effectively support and train youth board members?

  • Providing adequate support and training for youth board members is crucial for their personal and professional development. Organisations should consider implementing mentorship programs, life coaching, and training sessions to equip young people with the necessary skills and knowledge to actively engage in board activities. Additionally, creating opportunities for youth board members to report to the main board of trustees allows for meaningful connections and bridges the gap between young people and decision-makers.

Listening to young people’s needs and views through youth boards and advisory groups is an invaluable practice for youth organisations. As in many aspects of listening, there is no one size fits all – but there are common themes which aid authentic and constructive participation, mutuality and empowerment. We will explore some of the questions posited here further in the coming months.

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