First-Generation Leaders: The Untapped Potential Needed by Nonprofit Boards

First-Generation Leaders: The Untapped Potential Needed by Nonprofit Boards

In the ever-evolving landscape of nonprofit organizations, first-generation leaders remain underrepresented mainly on governing boards. These talented leaders are often the first in their families to achieve higher education, professional success, or wealth. They bring with them a unique perspective fueled by lived experiences that are generally underrepresented in boardrooms. However, first-generation leaders are often overlooked or discouraged from participating at the board level despite their potential to contribute significantly. It is incumbent upon us to remove the hurdles that prevent first-generation leaders from serving on non-profit boards and to embrace the wealth of knowledge and fresh perspectives they bring to the table. Rarely are practical strategies discussed or steps taken to create pathways into the governance arena. Instead, across the US, our boardrooms, by and large, look like they did 10 and 20 years ago.

One of the most significant barriers to entry for first-generation leaders is financial. In this article, we explore the financial obstacles first-generation leaders face, the impact of these barriers, and proposed solutions and strategies for more inclusive board practices.

Financial Barriers and Their Impact:

The exclusion of first-generation leaders due to financial barriers has profound consequences for nonprofit organizations. For one, it results in boards that lack diversity—not just in terms of ethnicity or gender but also in terms of life experiences and worldviews. This lack of diversity can lead to groupthink and limit the organization's capacity for creative problem-solving, effective governance, and empathic engagement with the communities they serve. The funnel needs to be broadened, not closed, to this emerging generation of leaders with a heart for service and civic engagement. 

The “Give or Get” Dilemma

In nonprofit boards, there’s often a financial prerequisite known as the "give or get" policy. Board members are expected to contribute to the organization or raise the equivalent amount from their networks. This requirement can be a significant barrier for first-generation leaders who may not have the financial resources or the social capital to meet these expectations. Often, the second or third sentence when seeking new Directors is the requirement for this financial investment. Unlike for-profit corporate boards, nonprofits rarely compensate for the time, wisdom, and sweat equity of Directors. Immediately, the posture is a “paid” entry. Yet, nonprofit boards are a potential gateway to paid corporate board opportunities. One can hardly penalize or criticize the need for nonprofits in 2023 to be laser focused on their fundraising environment, or for seeking assistance in raising donations from their board. So what is an organization to do?

Invisible Costs: Reimbursements and Time

Another financial hurdle that is less talked about but equally significant is the delay in reimbursements for board-related expenses. Our first-generation leaders often balance the costs of achieving their financial education and raising children without the backing of generational wealth. They may often have costs associated with extended family or elder caregiving. Credit is often tied to credit card limits that charge high interest rates, and anything over 30 days accrues fees. As a board chair, I have little tolerance for reimbursements not made within a 15-20 day window. This simple courtesy avoids pressures that distract from service and mission. To usher in an era of innovative and grounded leadership, we must commit to eradicating barriers that prevent first-generation leaders from fulsome engagement and participation on non-profit boards.

The traditional expectations around time commitments disproportionately impact first-gen leaders who might need more flexible schedules for frequent and sometimes lengthy board meetings. These factors make board service financially and logistically burdensome for first-gen leaders, further widening the representation gap. Organizations should individually query the tax on these leaders placed by their sponsoring organizations.  Some employers fully support and give administrative time for nonprofit board service, but many do not. Do not assume that time is free. I often mentor and coach new Directors who are forced to take personal leave or work extra hours to be allowed flexibility to support nonprofit boards. Some have an additional personal tax in hiring caregivers for evening or weekend meetings. We must consider the time tax on our directors to be able to attract or keep the robust and diverse governing board desired. 

Solutions and Strategies:

Sliding Scale Contributions

One way to alleviate the financial strain imposed by "give or get" policies is to adopt a sliding-scale contribution model. This model adjusts financial expectations based on an individual board member's capacity to give. This makes board membership accessible to a more diverse group of leaders who can offer invaluable perspectives that the organization might otherwise miss out on. It can consider employer contributions and skills (sweat equity) donated to the organization. 

Prompt Reimbursement

Another area for improvement is the speed and efficiency of the reimbursement process for out-of-pocket expenses incurred during board service. Organizations should aim to expedite this process to reduce the financial burden on all board members, particularly first-gen leaders for whom these costs may represent a significant strain. Create a policy and a template that reduces any administrative burden. Hotline the process and set quality metrics for cycle times. 

Be explicit about what is or is not reimbursable. If you are delayed beyond 30 days, consider reimbursement for accrued fees. 

Time-Flexible Engagements

Virtual board meetings have gained acceptance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there's no reason why this trend shouldn't continue. Virtual or asynchronous meeting options make participation more convenient for everyone and are particularly beneficial for first-gen leaders who might have demanding job schedules or other commitments. Discuss the balance between in-person and virtual attendance. Set transparent and predictable calendars for meetings. Be considerate when setting a mandatory number of committee assignments. 

Building Executive Presence and  Social Collateral 

One of the challenges first-generation leaders may face is a need for more experience in presenting themselves or the organizations they serve professionally. To alleviate this, nonprofits can assist by standardizing messaging and branding materials for all board members. Creating templates for emails, presentations, and other communications can help first-gen directors speak confidently and accurately about the organization's mission and activities. Providing business cards and email accounts for all board members is another small but impactful way to give first-gen directors the tools they need to network effectively. For larger nonprofits, consider optional investments in continuing education on issues impacting your sector or service offerings. Incorporate board mini-session on executive presence and branding for impact.  Make it easy for directors to serve as public-facing ambassadors, providing them with tools to help advance your brand and mission as they pursue the “get” part of their financial commitment. 

Networking Membership Sponsorships

Another way to support first-gen directors is by investing in memberships to vibrant networking organizations. By serving as ambassadors of the organization, board members can grow their professional networks while raising awareness and potential financial support for the nonprofit. This can be especially beneficial for first-gen directors, who may still need to gain extensive networks in the philanthropic or business communities. Often, the fees for membership into networking organizations are discounted for nonprofits, and the return on investment is well worth the effort. 

Mentorship Programs

First-gen leaders may not benefit from drawing on a lifetime of family connections or professional mentorship. Few may have experienced mentors serving in governance roles.  Implementing a board mentorship program can go a long way in bridging this gap. Pairing less experienced directors with seasoned board members can help first-gen directors better understand their roles, responsibilities, and the nuances of effective board service. Careful consideration should be undertaken not to undermine the director.  Mentors do not necessarily need to be currently serving board members. Instead,  this is a great way to re-engage past board alumni.  

Personal Development Workshops

Offering workshops and training sessions in areas like governance, fundraising, strategic planning, and even personal branding can be beneficial. These sessions can help all board members but are especially valuable for first-gen directors who may have yet to be exposed to these topics. For a small fee, you can create a curated mico-training program that allows Directors to take small yet intentional steps to deepen their expertise. 

Onboarding Resource Kits

A well-structured onboarding process can be incredibly empowering for first-gen directors. Supplying them with comprehensive resource kits can help them hit the ground running. These kits should contain essential reading materials, a glossary of common terms and acronyms used in the nonprofit world, and any software or tools they'll need to participate effectively in board activities. I suggest creating a cultural competency section that discusses the entity's nuanced and unique characteristics, norms, and taboos. Ease the need for hypervigilance in meetings. Imagine coming into a room and feeling like you are interrupting a conversation. Ease tensions by using plain and transparent language in board meetings and correspondence.

In summary, let us not just invite first-generation leaders to the table but remove the barriers that obstruct their path, unleashing a powerhouse of insight, dedication, and transformative leadership. Boards play a critical and vital role in ensuring the success of the nonprofit sector. Board transformation can seem daunting, but ignoring the composition and representation within your governance structure is a surefire way to find obsolescence. Incorporating my strategies can make a difference in attracting first-gen directors and setting them up for success. The steps to get there are clear and achievable. They involve thinking differently about financial expectations, providing the tools for professional presentation and networking, offering mentorship and training, and giving all board members—especially those who may be serving for the first time—the resources they need to succeed. With these measures in place, nonprofit boards can become more diverse and impactful, better reflecting and serving the communities that rely on their support. 

If you want to transform your advisory or governing board to meet your organization's needs, please contact for a complimentary consultation with me or a senior manager. We are passionately committed to improving the nonprofit sector and will gladly discuss your unique vision and goals.

Rosye Blancas Cloud, a first-generation American from El Paso, Texas, stands at the helm of STRATA9 as Founder, President, and CEO. Drawing from her rich bilingual background and experience as a long-time public official, she spearheads initiatives to foster social and economic mobility in the U.S. From her base in the Washington, DC metro area, Rosye also serves as the chairwoman of multiple boards, applying a visionary yet grounded approach to amplify opportunities and create lasting change, both professionally and in her community.