Q: We want to involve a new generation in the foundation. At what age should we welcome new board members?

A: Family boards often agonize over what the minimum age for board members should be. Older family members worry which groups, branches, or people will be included or excluded. Younger family members wonder what will suddenly be expected of them once they reach that looming age. Should you set the standard at the driving age? How about the voting age? The drinking age? The age at which someone could run for President?

The National Center finds that focusing attention on an arbitrarily chosen age of “philanthropic maturity” limits your opportunity to build a great board and prepare potential board members. Instead, consider the larger questions of what kind of board members would best serve the foundation and what kind of commitment you expect from them. Create a trustee job description. Then, you can invite board members who bring the knowledge, skills, abilities, and passions that will make your board a successful one. If setting an age floor—or ceiling—can help you do that, then set one.

The National Center offers the following tips with regard to age limits:

  • Check out your state’s legal minimum. In Michigan, for example, foundation board members can be as young as 16. Some states have no minimum age at all. Make sure your age limit complies with state law.
  • Don’t worry if potential board members don’t seem interested once they’re eligible. Often, the minimum age is set between 18 and 35. This is the age at which family members are starting college, careers, and/or families of their own. Older family members frequently get discouraged when the family members they hoped would step up aren’t interested. Don’t despair. They’re just busy. Leave the invitation open, and eventually those with the talent and interest you’re looking for will come around.
  • Welcome interest whenever it comes, however it comes. Remember that board service isn’t the only way to be involved in the family’s philanthropy.

“Don’t equate involvement with board service,” says Ginny Esposito, Founder and President of the National Center for Family Philanthropy. “When you set up board service as the only avenue for involvement, you set your family up for failure.”

Esposito points out lots of ways to be involved in a family’s philanthropy at any age. Going on site visits, reviewing proposals, reporting on grantee activities and family members’ personal charity and philanthropy, and assisting with finance, administration, and communication are all important tasks. Welcome participation in any of these activities. When you offer a number of opportunities to be involved in the family’s giving—not just board service—the age at which these contributions are made diminishes in importance.