How one nonprofit is giving power to millennials

… and benefiting from their perspective, passion, and purpose.

It was 7:30 a.m. on a rainy January day. With sleep still in my eyes, I walked through the glass doors of the offices of the Oregon Environmental Council. In a back corner of their office, I stepped into a brick-walled conference room where a dozen wide-awake young professionals were happily exchanging greetings and hugs as they prepared to get down to business. I took a seat, sipped my coffee, and got ready to meet the 2016 cohort of the Emerging Leaders Board.

Six years ago, this group was created as an experiment. Oregon Environmental Council (OEC) was looking for a way to increase the membership and engagement of younger Oregonians in its work. The idea of an Emerging Leaders Board was floated by a young advocate in what would be the first of many conversations with OEC’s executive director, Andrea Durbin. Today this group of fifteen passionate young professionals, most of whom are under thirty, help ensure that OEC remains connected and relevant to the concerns and interests of millennials.

ELB members show their early morning enthusiasm at OEC’s office in Portland.

Early on, the Brainerd Foundation invested in OEC’s Emerging Leaders Board. As long-time supporters of OEC, we were intrigued by this novel approach to engaging young people in the work of an environmental advocacy organization. And we were curious about where it would lead.

As the foundation now nears its sunset, we are reflecting on our past investments and sharing what we’ve learned over the years. To that end, I’m creating a series of case studies about our grantees’ efforts to build and support the next generation of leaders. And so it was with that intention, that I found myself surrounded by a group of inspiring young Portlanders who make up OEC’s Emerging Leaders Board (ELB).

Over the next several months, with the blessing of OEC’s executive director, I sat down with nearly twenty current and former ELB members, OEC staff, and advisors on its board of directors. I read the ELB’s strategic plan, reviewed its metrics, and researched its alumni on LinkedIn. At the core, I sought to understand the benefits of this approach to engaging millennials and to identify opportunities to maximize its impact.

One of the tricky parts of working at a foundation is getting grantees to engage in candid conversation with you. Perhaps because I’m not much older than the members of the ELB, or maybe because my directness caught them off-guard, I found myself writing furiously as these passionate leaders divulged their proud moments, minor frustrations, and high hopes for the ELB and their own future careers.

At the end of these conversations, I walked away with a notebook filled with stories and insights about what it takes to effectively engage the next generation of leaders at a 50-year-old conservation organization. I learned how OEC benefits from the ELB and what emerging leaders gain from the experience, and I managed to distill six ingredients that fuel the ELB’s successes.

These ingredients include things like the extraordinary autonomy and opportunities for creativity that OEC gives to the ELB, which has resulted in a series of fun and lively events that attract and resonate with millennials.

Clockwise from left: Speaker Minds performs at the ELB’s 2016 Get Dirty for Clean Air event; “The Time is Now” film screening at Airbnb Headquarters in Portland; 2015 Little Foot Red Ale release party; Portland Thorns soccer game with ELB.

The emerging leaders were also quick to talk about how they’ve helped OEC on its path to becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization. Through mindful recruitment practices and an inclusive culture, the ELB enables OEC to reflect the diversity of the millennial generation. And ELB members help hold OEC to its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

My inquiry also captured a few ideas for how OEC can take its emerging leaders board to the next level. What I uncovered is summarized in our first Grantee Close-up.


As the Brainerd Foundation moves forward with our Emerging Leaders Initiative, we expect to have the opportunity to invest in OEC’s efforts to further strengthen the ELB. And I’m excited to start work on our next emerging leaders case study, featuring Alaska Center’s continuum of environmental education and leadership programs. Stay tuned for more about that.

I am grateful to OEC and its ELB members, past and present, for letting me peak under the hood and ultimately share what I learned with them and our readers and other collaborators. And I especially want to thank all the dynamic young leaders who invited me into their community and shared their insights so generously on that rainy winter day a year ago. With all that the planet faces these days, we really need to engage the next generation and invite them to make change by, as one ELB member said, “having fun and getting sh*t done.”