MADISON, Wis. -- In the Filene Research Institute brief, "A Seat at the Table: Young Adult Directors and Board Advisors," author Ben Rogers dives into the touchy subject of what credit unions can do to add a young voice to their typically aging boards.
In the brief, Rogers builds off a previous Filene study conducted by William Brown, a governance specialist at Texas A&M University. Brown surveyed 379 board members representing 713 credit unions from across the United States and found that 75% were older than age 50, 25% were 49 or younger and 6% were 39 or younger.
Rogers said that he believes that a governance problem is already starting among credit unions with board members not wanting to retire because they fear there is nobody to replace them. In five to 10 years, Rogers said that when many board members do retire there will be a huge gap to fill, but he stressed to credit unions that replacement for the sake of replacement is not the answer.
"Reluctance to add young members to boards is justified," Rogers said. "I'm very up front with the fact that I don't believe in adding a young member just to add a young member."
Rogers said that boards should examine their needs, their membership and look at peer groups with talented young professionals. Just like with adding any board member, when looking to add a young face to the board, the credit union should be aiming to draw an interesting mind and a high achiever.
"Boards don't take their recruiting responsibilities as deeply as they should," Rogers said. "They need to go outside the typical peer groups they look in. It takes work, but there will be a high payoff in the end."
Rogers said that one of the reasons he felt compelled to write the brief was that adding young membership is a hot topic among credit unions and what many credit unions don't realize is that it's just one piece of the puzzle.
"You need to also look at adding younger employees and volunteers to support the move to younger membership. You can't look five to 10 years into the future without looking to have a replacement strategy."
When it comes to discussing replacement strategies among credit union boards, Rogers said it's a topic that is met with resistance. Aside from his work at Filene, Rogers helps out at the annual National Directors Convention. At this past convention, Rogers held a session along with William Brown about credit union governance and strategy replacement that he said was not very well received.
"It's a touchy issue, a lot of people didn't want to talk about it and got defensive especially when discussing term limits. Most of the people that attend the convention are age 60 or older, and there's nothing wrong with that, a lot of them are good volunteers. There's nothing wrong with age and experience on a board, there are lot of pluses that come with it, but credit unions need to look forward tactfully to have skillful placement on the board."
Rogers said that some boards voice the concern that it is difficult to find replacements, but Rogers said that many times that is because they are looking in the same places they always look. If the issue is pushed aside, and there is no thoughtful examination of a board's future, Rogers said that there will definitely be a governance crisis among credit unions. If boards wait to deal with the issue down the road they will have to deal with governance issues and potential market problems that could arise in the future at the same time.
Rogers examined USC Credit Union as part of his study. The credit union board now has its third student director, Justin Ho. The credit union, which has a young membership, decided in the late 1990's that it wanted students to be represented on the board. The credit union went to the college to obtain a list of scholarship recipients and started looking for qualified candidates to join the board.
Ho is a senior at USC and described his past two years on the board as the greatest experience of his life. Ho said the position and responsibility involved sold itself when asked why he wanted to take the position on the board.
"A lot of people in my generation want to make a difference," Ho said. "We're very entrepreneurial and are always thinking about the next step. I think there are a lot of people in my generation out there who would love an opportunity like this."
At first, Ho said he did feel a little disconnected with the board, but like any new board member, there as a transitional period to go through. Ho said the fact that most of the board members at USC CU are faculty members and have experience dealing with students helped in terms of them embracing his ideas.
"There are definitely times where we disagree, but that's the beauty of it," Ho said.
In his research, Rogers said that he talked with a CEO at a large educational credit union. The CEO said that the board had talked for years about bringing in a young board member, but they haven't yet. Rogers said that, according to the CEO, the credit union has lost a lot of perspective without having a young board member, but that there is a fear they will end up taking over the board.
To deal with boards that are apprehensive and have fears about adding a young board member, Rogers suggested adding a young person as an advisory board member as an intermediate step. An advisory board member can still add a young voice to a board without having to make them a full-fledged board member with voting rights.
Like USC CU, Rogers said that boards should look for high-achieving college students or even high school students.
"It's not about getting someone just to say that you did it. It's about getting someone that is the right caliber," Rogers said.
Even looking among credit union high school branches for students that are very involved and high achievers is a good outlet. Rogers said it is better to look among a group the credit union is familiar with rather than reach out to the general membership.