Increasing youth leadership on boards, advisory groups and committees

Consider these five tips to increase youth voice at your next committee meeting.

Michigan 4-H Youth Development puts an emphasis on youth-driven learning throughout its programs.  From 4-H club officers to planning committees for statewide events, 4-H programs expect that youth are involved in the planning and delivery of programs, going above and beyond simply participating in them. 

To guide local programming, many county 4-H programs utilize advisory groups.  With such a strong emphasis on youth-driven programming, it can be surprising to find many of these meetings are attended most regularly by adults.  Look around your next committee meeting and ask:  do youth out-number adults in the room?  Are youth genuinely engaged in the discussion?  Do youth have opportunities to practice leadership skills? 

If the answer to any of these questions is no, consider implementing one or more of the tips below.

  • Bylaws and Committee Structure. Be sure the bylaws of the group provide for plenty of youth involvement.  Be careful about tokenism, and don’t ask just one or two youth to represent the many varied ideas of their peers.  Create enough youth positions so that youth are able to speak for themselves.   These other articles will help to address structures of youth voice in advisory groups and  sample group bylaws

  • Consider Meeting Time. High-school aged youth are often juggling many commitments and equally important priorities, not to mention homework and studying for their next exam.  Find a meeting start and end time that youth can commit to.  It’s best if it’s on a date/time that is repeated regularly so youth can plan ahead.  Furthermore, set an end time and stick to it.  Youth need to know what time they will be out of the meeting so they can plan enough time to complete their homework.  Most of the business at 4-H meetings can be conducted within 1.5 hours.

  • Empower Youth. Consider the group’s willingness to have youth in meaningful leadership roles.  The most successful groups assign youth important roles that are crucial to the group’s success and expect youth to follow-through.  Without meaningful and important roles, youth may decide attending the meeting isn’t worth their time, given their very busy schedules.  On the other hand, if youth understand the group’s success depends on them being there, they will work harder to make attendance and input a priority.   

  • Consider the Lessons Learned through Failure. Sometimes the biggest barrier in allowing youth to take the reins is the adults’ fear of watching youth fail.  An adult advisor might worry the youth president won’t have enough time to create an agenda for the next meeting, and trying to be helpful, step in to do it for the youth.  Youth (and adults) who fail to follow through on responsibilities are much more apt to complete them the next time, after realizing the consequences of their actions.  Additionally, youth’s perceived failure can generate problem-solving skills and sometimes creates new ways of accomplishing goals, which can energize groups tremendously.  For example, meeting without an agenda may cause the youth officers to work together to make a quick, impromptu plan for the meeting, learning teamwork and possibly a whole new approach to meeting structure.

  • Make Meetings Fun- Although there’s always plenty of important business to be conducted during a typical committee meeting, carve out some time for relationship building.  Icebreakers and team building activities can help a group feel more at-ease with each other.  The 4-H club meeting wheel (found in Helping You Help Officers and Committees) suggests each meeting include 15-20 minutes of group building.  While it may be tempting to skip this step, it encourages the kind of connections that keep youth coming back.

Interested in learning more? Michigan State University Extension staff members on the Leadership and Civic Engagement work group are available to provide trainings on these and related topics.  Contact the group for more information at

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