Letting go and moving forward: Changing nests after 23 years

The 2017 Emerging Leaders Board. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Environmental Council.

As the Brainerd Foundation nears its sunset, we are looking more closely at efforts to build and support the next generation of conservation leaders. One of our grantees, the Oregon Environmental Council (OEC), is doing something few other organizations have tried. Six years ago, OEC created an Emerging Leaders Board (ELB) to increase the engagement of younger Oregonians in its work. Intrigued by this strategy, we took a closer look to see what we can learn from OEC's approach.

How it works

  • Approximately 15 young professionals (ages 25–35) are appointed to the ELB for up to two 18-month terms. Each year, its current members use a competitive process to select new members from the greater Portland area.

  • The ELB sets annual goals that align with OEC's mission and priorities. Current goals include fundraising through events, supporting OEC programs, and professional development of ELB members.

  • The full ELB meets monthly, with additional executive and working committee meetings in between. Members spend about 5–10 hours per month on ELB activities.

  • OEC's marketing director staffs the ELB, with other OEC staff providing additional support and guidance as needed.

Who they are

Since 2010, more than 40 young people have served on the ELB, including a sustainability consultant, a marketing professional, a clean energy advisor, a realtor, a land use planner, a nonprofit fundraiser, a business journalist, a small business owner, and an academic focused on economic development and equitable planning.

What they do

ELB members amplify OEC's message and engage their peers in OEC campaigns and programs, by using social media and organizing events. And they leverage their personal and professional networks to support OEC. Their events and activities have included:

  • An annual Get Dirty for Clean Air night with live music and a silent auction. This event taps music industry friends for entertainment and an ELB alum and restauranteur who donates food.

  • A partnership with a Portland brewery to create a low-carbon, climate-friendly beer. Art students from Portland State University designed a beer label and silkscreened the logo on shirts at its release party.

  • An exclusive screening of a film the ELB produced for OEC's climate campaign. This project relied on an ELB member's video production contacts and a personal connection to author Cheryl Strayed who narrated the film.

  • An OEC fundraiser night at a local professional soccer game, which builds on an ELB member's affiliation with a professional sports alliance.

  • An evening with a "stand-up economist" comedian.

A collage of four images: a band on stage, a crowd around tables in a cafeteria, two soccer players, and a release party invitation
Clockwise from left: Speaker Minds performs at the ELB's 2016 Get Dirty for Clean Air event; "The Time is Now" film screening at Airbnb Headquarters in Portland; 2015 Little Foot Red Ale release party; Portland Thorns soccer game with ELB.

What we learned

Through conversations with nearly 20 current and former ELB members, OEC staff, and members of its board of directors, we learned a lot about the ELB and what makes it work. Here are our top take-aways.

Young people are eager for this type of opportunity.

Participation in the ELB is competitive, with nearly ten applicants for every opening. And they aren't all nonprofit professionals. Young people from a wide range of professions have joined the ELB, devoting significant time and energy to its activities.

OEC benefits from the ELB in several ways.

  • The ELB continually attracts dynamic, passionate young professionals who use their innovative and creative energy to advance OEC's mission. They add capacity to the organization, and let OEC try new things with less risk.

  • The ELB connects OEC to new networks, allies, and businesses, creating new partners and donors for OEC.

  • The ELB helps OEC reflect the diversity of the millennial generation. It enables OEC to give younger and more racially diverse Oregonians leadership roles in the organization. And ELB members help hold OEC to its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

  • The ELB gives a younger, hipper face to OEC. Fun and lively events attract and resonate with younger people. These events provide a welcoming and memorable way for millennials to learn about and engage with OEC.

Members of the ELB also benefit from the experience.

  • ELB members are empowered to be creative and take leadership in the ELB's activities. Together they set goals, plan events, and execute them.

  • ELB members gain practical experience with fundraising, event organizing, board governance, mobilizing others, and messaging.

  • ELB members build a professional network of peers and develop strong friendships that last long beyond their time on the ELB. One alumnus was the best man in another's wedding. Other alums talk regularly and seek each other out for advice.

Members of the ELB also benefit from the experience.

So what's the secret sauce that fuels the ELB? We've narrowed it down to 6 ingredients:

  • OEC gives the ELB considerable autonomy, creativity, and freedom.

    This approach engages the talents and passions of a younger generation ready to lead, and enables them to try things OEC staff might not.

  • ELB members take their work seriously.

    Emerging leaders make meaningful commitments to the ELB and hold each other accountable. Each member takes the lead on at least one activity or action, and they use committees to get work done.

  • The ELB is diverse in perspectives, professions, and experiences.

    This allows for more nuanced discussions, catalyzes new and innovative approaches to their work, and drives them to be intentional about who they reach out to and how.

  • OEC invests staff time.

    This ensures that the ELB has the support it needs and its activities are aligned with the organization's priorities. Staff have built a strong rapport with ELB members and this makes working together enjoyable for all.

  • OEC's executive leadership and board of directors believe in the ELB and value its work.

    This helps ELB members feel proud of their contribution and solidifies their personal commitment to serving on the ELB.

  • The ELB is continually evolving.

    In the last six years, the ELB has expanded its size, created working committees, appointed co-chairs, scaled its goals, and focused on an interesting variety of environmental issues. These adjustments have enabled the ELB to conform to the needs and interests of its members without stagnating.

Taking it to the next level

We were impressed by the Emerging Leaders Board and the young people it has engaged. And, as you'd expect, our probe also uncovered some promising opportunities that it has yet to fully explore. Here are some additional ideas that could expand the impact of an emerging leaders board:

Educate young leaders about environmental policy issues and advocacy opportunities.

An emerging leaders board presents a rare venue for young people to have an insider's look at the complexities of an environmental issue and possible paths to success. Make space for policy and advocacy staff to share their knowledge with emerging leaders in order to expand their horizons and the impact of their work.

Leverage the millennial perspective of emerging leaders in programmatic, communications, and advocacy work.

Beyond the independent activities of an emerging leaders board, organizations can tap these young people for advice on effectively engaging and communicating with younger audiences.

Provide a standard curriculum and series of trainings for emerging leaders.

An emerging leaders board will inherently see turnover in members, creating an environment ripe for training. Recurring topics might include nonprofit governance, reading financials, measuring impact, strategic planning, diversity and equity, legislative advocacy, storytelling, fundraising, personal resilience, and more.

Maintain lasting connections with alumni.

Create a mechanism for sustaining a two-way relationship with emerging leaders long after they leave the board. Help alumni with their careers, and cultivate them as passionate environmental leaders and donors. Trust that this will pay dividends to the organization and the broader movement.

Our advice to organizations considering something like this

Deciding to launch an emerging leaders board is no small feat. Below is some of the best advice we heard for setting them up for success:

1. Be clear about your goals and realistic about expectations.

Why is your organization considering creating an emerging leaders board? Your staff, board of directors, and the emerging leaders you recruit should all have a solid understanding of the board's purpose and intended outcomes from the get-go.

2. Make sure you have the staff resources to support a cohort of emerging leaders.

To take full advantage of an emerging leaders board and provide a meaningful experience for its members, they will need a staff liaison who can devote an average of 4–8 hours per week to support the ELB for the first few years. Be sure to also budget funds for leadership development, training, and expenses associated with the group's activities.

3. Be willing to provide guidance and autonomy.

Emerging leaders will benefit from guidance on governance structures, education about your organization's programs, and input on their proposed activities. Give them autonomy to develop creative approaches to fulfilling the goals established for the group, and let their passion drive their work.

4. Make sure your organization and its emerging leaders measure their impact.

It's important that progress toward the group's goals can be easily quantified and measured using your organization's existing data management systems. Emerging leaders want to know they make a difference, and your organization will benefit from a clear and easy mechanism for evaluating their impact.

5. Be prepared to forge lasting relationships and cultivate them as life-long ambassadors for your organization.

An emerging leaders board provides a unique opportunity for young people to engage deeply with your organization at a transformational time in their lives. Get to know them personally and help them stay connected with your organization for decades to come. Dedicate staff time to making this happen.

The Bottom Line

Without question, OEC benefits from its Emerging Leaders Board and these young leaders gain valuable experience and connections to advance their careers. However, all of this comes at a cost — in terms of staff time, financial resources, and other paths not taken. Whether an emerging leaders board is the right answer for another organization depends on its objectives and operating environment. And yet we believe this is one of several promising strategies for building the bench of environmental leaders. We are grateful to OEC and ELB members, past and present, for letting us peak under the hood and share what we have learned with others.

Download a printable PDF of this report.