Bridging the Generation Gap: Why Your Organization Should have an Associate Board (and How to Start One)

Nonprofits often struggle to connect with the next generation of donors. An Associate Board might be the answer to keep your nonprofit moving forward.

Bridging the Generation Gap: Why Your Organization Should have an Associate Board (and How to Start One)
11 mins read

Millennials and Gen Z make up over half the US population, but only account for 16% of contributions to total charitable giving.

At the same time, almost two-thirds of that demographic say they feel like they aren’t doing enough when it comes to donating and volunteering in their communities. It seems like there’s a chasm between what young professionals want to give back to their communities and what they actually contribute. Chances are nonprofits are feeling the effects of this gap.

At YCore, we work with nonprofits across the Bay Area—over 30 organizations each year—and our nonprofit partners frequently tell us how disconnected they feel from the young professionals in their backyards. Nonprofits know that investing in this untapped network will bring them not only additional donors and volunteers but the potential for long-term champions of their work. Yet very few nonprofits know how to bridge this gap.

Our advice to our partners is this: one of the most effective, sustainable ways to engage young professionals in your work is by starting an Associate Board.

What is an Associate Board?

An Associate Board (which might also be called a Junior Board or a Young Professionals Board) is a group of early-career individuals who commit to contributing their time, talent, and/or treasure to a nonprofit organization for a set period of time. In this case, “early career” usually means no more than 5-10 years out of college, but this timeframe may vary depending on your organization and the community you’re hoping to engage. Generally, an Associate Board (AB) will be composed of folks who aren’t typically considered ready to sit on a Board of Directors, either because of their level of expertise, their financial capacity, or their time capacity.

Other than the age and experience of members, the biggest difference between an AB and a traditional Board of Directors is that an AB has no formal governance responsibilities. A Board of Directors must, by law, oversee certain financial and operational processes for the organization, but there are no legal requirements that determine what an AB must do.

This means that the role an Associate Board can play in your organization is incredibly flexible, and forming one can be an excellent opportunity to think broadly about new kinds of support you might want to receive. Here are some examples of activities that an AB might be able to take on:

  • Engaging and creating content for next-generation donors
  • Bringing in and/or retaining next-generation volunteers
  • Building relationships with local companies (often the employers of AB members)
  • Planning and executing events as well as supporting events you are already planning
  • Advising on strategic questions
  • Supporting staff with ad hoc or strategic volunteering, possibly by reading program applications or streamlining internal processes

How do I start an Associate Board?

1. Articulate your goals.

The first step in starting an Associate Board is identifying your organization’s primary goals for the group. Look at the list above (or dream up some goals of your own) and zoom in on 1-3 things you really hope this group will do.

2. Identify an internal champion.

Next, you’ll need to identify someone internal to your organization to be the driver and point of contact for your AB. Allocate at least 1-2 hours per week for this role to start. Someone from your organization should be present at and (ideally) provide space for the first meeting. Once the board is up and running, you’ll likely be able to scale back the amount of time you spend on it.

3. Find a couple of founding members.

It’s important to have a few members who will work closely with you on the formation of this group. These should be young professionals you trust, who are already excited about your organization and willing to put in some legwork to get the AB off the ground. You don’t need more than one or two people to play this role, and, in most cases, they will end up serving as chair or co-chairs for the first year or two.

4. Make big and small picture decisions.

You can either work through these with just your founding members or co-create these with the entire AB once you’ve recruited more people. Either way, be sure that these things get decided in your first few meetings. That said, nothing should be set in stone for the first couple of years. Be prepared to make changes!

Some of these decisions might seek to address the following questions:

  • What are 1-3 top priorities for this group? What does long- and short-term success look like?
  • How will we build community and make sure members are getting what they want out of the experience?
  • How many members will we start with, and what initial roles (e.g. chair, membership director, secretary, etc.) will we have?
  • What will the time expectation be (including frequency of meetings, work expected outside of meetings, and term length)?
  • What will the financial commitment be, and how will it be structured?

There are a lot of possibilities in terms of big and small picture decisions your AB board can make. Make sure that you revisit your goals to determine what is realistic.

For example, if you want the group to spend most of their time fundraising, there can be a more ambitious group give/get. However, if you’d rather they spend their time on networking or special projects, consider smaller, individual give/get goals. In general, high individual donations aren’t recommended for this group.

How do I recruit members?

As you put together an AB member description, keep in mind that younger professionals are often looking to build their networks and/or professional skills. And just like when it comes to hiring and leadership, a strong board culture that values the individual members’ goals and lived experiences will help you recruit and retain AB members. You’ll want to be clear about what their experience will be like on the AB in addition to how they’ll be helping you to further your mission.

Another thing to consider is whether you want this group to bring diversity and new perspectives to your organization. Associate Boards can be a great way to include people from racial, gender, or socioeconomic backgrounds that aren’t currently represented in your organizational leadership.

Your goals for the AB will also help you focus on young professionals with professional connections, personal experience, and/or geographical ties that are most appropriate.

Here are some places you might consider recruiting:

  • Your existing volunteer base
  • Graduates from your program or family members of your client base
  • Family members or colleagues of current board members/staff/volunteers
  • Local professional groups (Net Impact, YCore, etc.)
  • Employees from companies that you have existing relationships with

What makes an effective Associate Board?

Consistent feedback and evaluation

Especially when you’re getting started, you’ll get things wrong. Make sure there are built-in moments to correct course and to celebrate wins. Your AB members should feel invested in the group’s goals and have a voice in shaping them.

A strong relationship with you!

Your AB is an extension of your organization, but it takes effort for them (and you) to feel that way. Make sure you’re checking in with chairs regularly and that other members have opportunities to build relationships with you and other staff members. You shouldn’t attend every meeting, but you might want to attend every other meeting or even join for a few minutes to say hello.

You might also want to encourage staff members to attend a few AB meetings and spend a few minutes talking about their roles and getting to know members. In general, you want both AB members to feel connected to your organization and your staff to be aware of and excited by the fact that this group exists.

Time to build community within the Associate Board

Investing in relationships within your AB upfront will pay off in the long run by creating a more collaborative, effective group that sticks around. Consider a retreat or social outing within the first month or two and encourage the group to repeat that every year. Even something as simple as meeting over dinner or assigning members to one-on-one coffee chats can go a long way to strengthening relationships.

A role for everyone

Especially with bigger ABs, it’s easy for members to feel like they’re unimportant or that they don’t have anything to do. That doesn’t mean you need a formal position for every member; it can be as simple as creating small, concrete ways for people to contribute, like assigning one-on-one conversation pairings, being in charge of signage for an event, or bringing in articles for the group to discuss. This also helps foster a culture of collaboration and creativity, which will lead to better communication as your AB evolves.

A Long-term Payoff

Starting an Associate Board requires a little upfront effort, but the long-term effects are well worth it. Offering young professionals a structured, engaging way to participate in your organization can both bolster your short-term goals and build a foundation for strong relationships with Millennial and Gen Z leaders in years to come.

Remember, these young professionals are a largely untapped group of donors and volunteers; many of them are looking to build the knowledge base and relationships with nonprofits that will set them up to serve as board members in the future. An Associate Board is a great opportunity for them to connect deeply with your mission and for you to invest in next generation leadership and champions.

About the Author

Executive Director at

Jess Blackshaw is the Executive Director of YCore, a Bay Area nonprofit that teaches and trains young professionals to be committed partners and advocates working towards community-based change. YCore’s flagship program is a 5-month volunteer fellowship that partners young professionals with local nonprofits to work on capacity-building projects. Prior to YCore, Jess designed experiential programming and content for emerging social impact leaders at Net Impact. She holds an MA in Iberian and Latin American Cultures and a BA in Philosophy and Literature from Stanford. When she’s not thinking about the ethics of citizenship, service, and social justice, you can find her running the San Francisco hills, singing in public, or buying excessive amounts of seasonal fruit.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

4 thoughts on “Bridging the Generation Gap: Why Your Organization Should have an Associate Board (and How to Start One)

  1. We currently have an Associate Board and working on ways to revamp the engagement levels. We are looking for ways to keep them engaged. This is something I know is hard even with a full board. Are there any tips on how to keep them engaged in the group?

  2. Don’t expect an associate board to raise tons of money. Most of those folks don’t have a lot of money and don’t know people who do. But they can raise smaller amounts of money and do a lot of other things, too.

  3. Excellent ideas. Excellent advice.
    We’re a non profit on behalf of the California State Parks in north San Diego County.
    We help support the Junior Lifeguard program in Carlsbad, Encinitas, and Cardiff State beaches.
    We are promoting this idea of an Associate Board to aid in recruiting and funding efforts.

  4. Help your Associate Board (A.B.) to codify their mission. Not the mission of your non-profit, and not the mission of your board of directors. Once their mission is clear, ask them to describe how they envision successfully completing the mission. If you have done an effective job recruiting quality individuals you will be pleasantly surprised by what the A.B. comes up with in terms of a plan. Tbis exercise will also give the individual members an opportunity to demonstrate their leadership skills (or lack thereof). People take pride in the successful completion of a task. Identifying a challenge and devising a plan to overcome the challenge are among the key skills of a good non-profit board member. The sooner your A.B. members are thinking and acting like board members, the better their non-profit board experience will be.

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