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Volunteer Engagement: Reaching out to Boomers

Emily Ferstle
Regional Coordinator for Student Engagement, Community Services
United Way for Southeastern Michigan

Volunteerism by Age GroupOne of the most rewarding and most challenging parts of my work in Volunteer Engagement is understanding the diverse characteristics and needs of those who volunteer. A while ago, I wrote about how Millennials can work with more experienced generations to ensure a better life for all.

But reports from the Corporation for National and Community Service indicates something it did not predict when it set its five year goals back in 2005. It reveals some stark statistics regarding the Baby Boomer generation’s involvement in volunteerism – it’s on the decline. In 2010, 28.8 percent of Boomers volunteered, a decrease from 29.9 percent in 2007, and from 33.5 percent in 2003, according to a 2010 annual report.

This came as a surprise to the Corporation, which had identified Boomers as low-hanging fruit for volunteer engagement efforts, subsequently investing millions of dollars into building out programs targeted specifically to engage them.

One of the Corporation’s five major objectives in its five-year strategic plan focused on “Harnessing Baby Boomers’ Experience." The rationale for this target gushed with claims about how “the nation and its communities can greatly benefit from the sheer volume, high motivation and broad talents of Baby Boomers, who can bring innovative ways to address the most pressing community needs.”

But instead, we experience a decline in Boomer volunteerism. But why? The problem with this strategy is that it is based on unfounded assumptions.

By setting a goal to increase volunteer rates among Baby Boomers, the strategy assumes that those who are not currently volunteering will begin volunteering upon retirement. This assumption seems to follow logic. If an individual has more time and is out of the work force, they should be more likely to volunteer. In fact, those out of the labor force are less likely to volunteer than those who are either employed or looking for work, as reported recently by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though it seems an anomaly based on opportunity cost, those employed full-time are the most likely to volunteer. Though we know that Baby Boomers are more civically active than the Traditionalist generation,  we cannot simply take their volunteer participation for granted.

Another assumption worth debunking is that which expects Baby Boomers to volunteer in traditional ways. The reason we cannot take Baby Boomer’s for granted as volunteers is exactly the same reason why the Corporation and Volunteer Centers across the nation find Baby Boomers so attractive as volunteers. It is precisely because they are skilled, self-motivated and highly educated.

Baby Boomers will not find the same fulfillment in packing food boxes or stuffing envelopes that they did from utilizing the skills and talents required by their careers. More attention will need to be paid in empowering this generation of volunteers to continue to draw from their life’s work through skill-based volunteering. (Not sure what skill-based volunteering is? Ask the word police!)

Baby Boomers, retirees, and those in “semi-retirement” are excellent candidates for skill-based volunteering because of their education, talents, experience, and available time. By promoting skill-based volunteerism — volunteering which requires specialized education or training, such as pro-bono legal services, health care or even pro-bono carpentry or painting volunteer management experts across the country encourage more efficient and effective volunteerism and increases the value of the time provided.  While traditional volunteering, which requires no training, is valued at $18-$20 an hour, skill-based volunteering is valued at $40-$500 per hour, depending upon the market value of the service. This not only channels the value of the service, but more importantly, demonstrates to this generation of volunteers that they are valued.

While it is the view of some that Baby Boomers must replenish volunteer ranks, it is my view that the call to action is to organizations to retool and better equip themselves to engage this generation in new and valuable ways. When volunteer centers across the national were spending time drooling over the Boomers as they entered retirement years, they should have been preparing themselves to better engage this productive and idealistic generation.