Understanding the motivations of baby boomer volunteers

Abstract: 

Effective recruitment strategies for older volunteers tie in to the roles they play in other aspects of their lives. Insights about baby boomer volunteers were generated from data provided by volunteer centers that work with businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies to engage volunteers in service. This practice is excerpted from the handbook 50+ Volunteering: Working for Stronger Communities.

Issue:

Volunteer opportunities must be expanded and diversified in order to appeal to the 35 million people who are already over 65 and the 79 million baby boomers who are transitioning from primary careers and family building.

Action:

According to Johnson, Cobb, Parel, Bouvier, and Fauss (2004), the roles of baby boomers and subsequent recruitment implications are as follows.

Role as ACTIVIST

While not all baby boomers were involved in the political activism that helped define the sixties, many boomers share a deep desire to make a difference in ambitious and inspirational ways.

Implications: Provide opportunities that inspire. Volunteer opportunities should be designed and marketed for mature activists who still desire change in their neighborhoods, communities, and the world. These volunteers bring skills, knowledge, and networks that they have accumulated throughout their careers and lives. Programs should help volunteers imagine how their efforts will bring about social change, and systems should be put in place that ensure that the volunteers at all levels of the organization know and are passionate about the ultimate goal and purpose of their work.

Tips: Provide volunteers the opportunity to form relationships that make good use of the skills they have accumulated over the years. Recent research reveals that retirees miss the friendships they formed with work colleagues. They miss working together to achieve a greater good or common goal. Don't seek volunteers; seek activists working to affect change or propel a movement.

When developing projects for mature activists, consider the following:

  • Is the mission of your organization clear and compelling? Do your paid staff and volunteers know it, talk about it regularly, and understand how their efforts help to realize it?
  • How can you increase staff and volunteer interaction so the two groups see themselves as colleagues working to accomplish similar goals?

Role as CONSUMER

Baby boomers are sophisticated consumers who are accustomed to expecting an abundance of options. As a result of the wealth of products and services available to them, they have an acutely defined sense of their own needs and preferences, as well as what they have to offer and spend. Moreover, this population is increasingly finding that time is their most limited commodity.

Implications: Provide a multiplicity of volunteer optionsThe number of short-term and project-based volunteer opportunities that agencies offer boomers and older adults must be significantly increased. One-time volunteering events such as cleaning a park, planting trees, and sorting clothes at a food shelter are all excellent ways to introduce people to volunteering. However, to garner the imagination and long-term commitment of this population, project-based opportunities that reflect the high expectations of agencies and volunteers must be designed and implemented. Examples of opportunities that yield significant results for agencies and volunteer satisfaction include short-term research projects, community surveys, and carpentry jobs.

Tips: Organize a half-day needs assessment retreat for your organization centered around the question "If we had more time or expertise, we would..." This exercise can help create a more abundant selection of volunteer opportunities that address the important organizational needs your staff cannot currently address. It's also the first step toward realizing the latent potential of retired and transitioning professionals, and helping staff see volunteers as a resource and not a competition.

When developing projects for consumer-oriented volunteers, consider the following:

  • Do your project descriptions have clearly stated goals and objectives?
  • Are you able to engage volunteers in creating strategies for project implementation? It is important to be as specific as possible in your organization's needs, while being as flexible as possible in the management and design of volunteer opportunities.
  • Are you single-minded in your promotion and marketing strategies? Do you target the specific subset of adults that you think will be most interested and qualified to volunteer for your organization? Remember that the quintessential baby boomer advertisement is short, snappy, creative, and alluring.

Role as WORKER

Americans now work more than any other population in the world, and baby boomers are often overworked and thinly stretched. Subsequently, exhaustion from their work lives could be one of the biggest obstacles to getting more of this population involved in volunteering. Nonetheless, a survey conducted by AARP of workers over the age of 45 shows that almost 70 percent of adults continue to plan on working into retirement. For those adults who are no longer working, social marketing research reveals that "retired" Americans all along the socioeconomic spectrum cherish this newfound freedom. However, when asked about their overall happiness with the retirement experience they also express some profound reservations, revealing in particular a powerful sense of loneliness. Beyond a sense of identity, they miss the bonds they experienced at work.

Implications: Manage volunteers professionally. An important motivation for encouraging retirees to volunteer is the chance to regain meaningful identity and relationships, particularly if combined with the opportunity to put existing skills to use. The trend toward early retirement is shifting, and tomorrow's older adults are likely to be busier than today's because of the many ways they have to spend their time. As a result, they will expect their volunteer experiences to be well managed and efficient.

Tips: Provide opportunities for advancement. Reward increased commitment and accomplishments with increased recognition and responsibility. Establish a volunteer track for people looking for continued and increased involvement.

  • When engaging transitioning professionals, consider the following:
  • Do you design and frame some of your volunteer projects as if you were engaging consultants or project managers? Playing an active role in setting project goals, procedures, and timelines will increase a volunteer's commitment and investment to the work.
  • Do you offer your volunteers incentives? Even small incentives such as learning new things, making new friends, and putting their career skills to good use, can make a meaningful difference to older volunteers.

Outcome:

According to Johnson et al. (2004), actively appealing to the motivations of older volunteers will lead to a significant increase in the number of boomers who give their time to service. For example, small incentives such as learning new things, making new friends, and putting their career skills to good use, could double the older volunteer force in the United States. In addition, 54 percent of volunteers and 48 percent of non-volunteers would give at least 15 hours per week if they received modest compensations such as reduced costs on prescription drugs, education credits, or small monthly stipends.

Citations: 

Johnson, C., Cobb, M., Parel, M., Bouvier, M., & Fauss, J. (2004). 50+ volunteering: Working for stronger communities. Atlanta, GA: Points of Light Foundation.


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