HOW many board members do you know who are still in their twenties?

I quizzed myself on that one a few days ago. Couldn’t come up with a single one. Not one. Bet you can’t either. Pathetic power of recall or simply that there aren’t any?

Sadly, and speaking for myself, I admit that I’m not in the first flush of youth so it could be that it’s forgetfulness on my part. And before you say it, I deliberately discounted all those bright young things who have started entrepreneurial limited companies and now carry a business card, paper or electronic, with the legend ‘executive director’ on it. In this scenario that would be cheating, if for no other reason than they’re being paid as employees when they attend their monthly business get together.

Loading article content

I’m talking about boards of charities and other not-for-profit organisations, large and small, where the members of the top table of governance typically work on a pro bono basis. Other than necessary expenses incurred during the exercise of related business, they get not a penny in recompense.

Compensation, too clinical a term here I know, is derived from personal satisfaction and a desire to give something back by way of experience gained during a lengthy career or through years of enduring difficult personal circumstances relevant to the cause.

Now I think of it, the "lengthy" bit in that last sentence probably accounts for the apparent rarity. All things being equal, generally you have to have lived a bit of life over more than a few years to gain the experience, be it commercial, professional or personal.

It may therefore also account for the fact that in Scotland the average age of such board members is 57, though it’s on its way down if Edinburgh Napier University has anything to do with it. In a first of its kind scheme, the student-led Young Professionals as Trustees initiative seeks to give students placements on these boards, giving a practical and effective two-way street of exchange to both parties.

On the one hand, students may be able to give of their academic knowledge, whatever it may be – from course specific capabilities to the under sung art of modern organisational skills. On the other, they get invaluable basic, or perhaps more advanced insight into how a board operates, debating real world issues leading to an outcome in practice.

Helping to influence decisions upon which others may ultimately depend and networking with experienced professionals undoubtedly offers practical business lessons and a fillip to the CV that is becoming more and more prized. Look at the number of profiles on LinkedIn now mentioning voluntary interests in the community, arts or social charities domain. It’s a great engagement tool.

Sixty students at Napier successfully completed and graduated from the appropriately-named Get On Board programme, now forming a ‘board bank’.

Make no mistake, this is no fast track course for those with too much time on their hands. It’s worth remembering in that context that board membership frequently occupies the minds of the busiest people in communities. What’s the old saying: ask a busy person if you want something done. They tend to be switched-on and focused, simply to get things done.

Good citizenship is at the heart of the matter. Yet with a questioning attitude – and there is an obvious need to have one of those around any committee, for the sake of balance – the employability capacities added to the academic proposition on a person’s resume will clearly offer leverage at interviews.

The plan is that the programme will add 40 new young professionals to the Young Professionals as Trustees board bank each year.

Dr Miles Weaver, a lecturer at the University’s Business School and convenor of the Young Professionals as Trustees Board, confirms: "We are the first university to offer a Get On Board programme and we aim to forge relationships with our third sector friends and partners across Scotland to extend the number of opportunities for young professionals."

Supported by the Napier Student Association, graduates can get access to relevant vacancies, fostering links with both the local area and further afield.

For me, as well as injecting a fresh brand of enthusiasm and introducing the very positive impact of the latest knowledge, this also offers the potential of a more level playing field to students who might not otherwise get to rub shoulders with the many people of influence who populate these boards. At this earliest stage of their professional careers, it will be an eye opener.

Even if their experiences offer-up less appealing elements – maybe dogmatic argument, overpowering personalities seeking to stamp a mark or, perhaps less likely in this type of board, those hiding another agenda – it represents a priceless taste of these elements which will, without question, be met during business careers in the public, private or third sectors.

That’s the imperfect nature of life, after all.

As an exercise in behavioural research, across the next decade might be interesting to track the continued interest of the students in serving on such boards or in self-assessing their business boardroom performances at a still early part of their careers.

Like most instruction received at formative points, it should leave indelible marks that translate to attributes.