Just so there is no misunderstanding: If you’re a billionaire living in Memphis, or even a millionaire, and you’d be interested in helping Literacy Mid-South and perhaps being on the board of directors, executive director Kevin Dean would love to sit down with you and have a conversation.
But a few years ago when Dean came in as executive director, with the nonprofit on the verge of financial ruin, he found that conversations with the usual board member candidates tended to have the same, frustrating, outcome.
“We’d lost a lot of board members and had to a do a lot of recruitment,” Dean recalled. “I met with the traditional candidates (generally older and wealthier), we’d sit down and have coffee, and they’d say, `I’m already on two or three boards. Let me roll off one first.’ That was painful.”
Today, Literacy Mid-South is on more solid footing and at least part of that can be attributed to establishing a wider base and a move toward bringing in younger, and first-time, board members.
“First-time board members can be scary because there’s a learning curve,” Dean said. “But there’s kind of an adapt-or-die mentality. Nonprofits have to adjust to new realities. We can’t do things the way we’ve always done them and we have to have new voices.”
Literacy Mid-South is made up of 18 board members and has nine full-time staff members, including Dean. About half of the 2015-16 board is made up of first-timers. And Dean, 36, says about half his staff his older than him and half younger.
Stuart Voges, 25, an accountant with Dixon Hughes Goodman LLC and the youngest member of Literacy Mid-South’s board, exemplifies the state of change. He has learned about the organization through a former Literacy Mid-South employee, and he had a skill set the nonprofit wanted to cultivate for the future.
“It’s an amazing organization,” Vogues said. “I had not discovered them in Memphis.”
Founded in 1974, Literacy Mid-South has helped more than 22,000 adults improve their reading skills. The organization’s 2013-14 Annual Report states that 85 percent of adult students show progress with their reading and that the organization has more than 300 active volunteers. A recent fall book festival drew 5,000 people.
While both adults and children are served, the sweet spot is the 35-49 age group, which makes up 40 percent of Literacy Mid-South students.
Dean says they are looking to engage younger volunteers on the front lines, adding, “Our volunteers typically have skewed older – retired teachers.”
With millennials in mind, Dean says they’ve made some changes in training: cutting orientation from two days to one day and introducing iPads. The younger volunteers and staff are keeping Dean and others current with technology.
More seasoned board members serve as mentors, and Voges has one in Fred Towler, a vice president at International Paper and Literacy Mid-South’s treasurer.
“He’s been doing this a long time, and he’s very good at answering any and all questions I have,” Voges said.
Dean also has seen the tenor of boardroom conversations evolve.
“The discussions in board meetings are productive because there are so many different points of view and it’s always respectful,” he said.
Voges and Literacy Mid-South’s community relations manager, Knox Shelton, are launching a Young Professionals Council to serve as a testing ground for future board members.
Dean say now is the time to get those young professionals’ attention, when they are perhaps seeking a nonprofit with which to become involved.
“If we can keep them in Memphis,” he said, “they’re going to be loyal to our brand forever.”