In Understanding the Motivations of Baby Boomer Volunteers, the national volunteerism organization AmeriCorps argues that 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.” As researchers, the question of how nonprofit organizations can proactively design volunteer programs to be attractive to, and specifically supportive of, this fast-growing demographic was compelling. We conducted in-depth research with volunteer program leaders across the midwestern US and believe that our findings are relevant nationally. This article contains select highlights and the full 28-page study is available here.
Easier to Recruit, Deploy, and Retain
The data suggest that one argument for prioritizing senior volunteers is the relative ease of recruiting and deploying them as compared with other demographics. Sixty-one percent of respondents said that senior volunteers are easier to recruit than younger volunteers. And once recruited, seniors can provide a stable base of support to an organization. Regarding volunteers who are 65-74 years old, our research found:
89% report this age group to be “very reliable;”
76% report this age group to be “willing to work on a regular schedule;”
75% report this age group to be “willing to do what’s needed;” and,
74% report this age group to be “willing to volunteer more hours per week than younger volunteers.”
Finally, the investment in recruitment and thoughtful deployment of senior volunteers proves to be a good investment of staff time: seventy-six percent of our respondents reported that senior volunteers are easier to retain than their younger counterparts.
Unique Advantages and Challenges
Seniors bring a potent set of advantages with them into the volunteer workforce of an organization. Regarding volunteers who are 65-74 years old, our research found:
83% report these volunteers’ “life experience” to be an advantage;
79% report these volunteers’ “useful skills” to be an advantage;
75% report these volunteers’ “willingness to do what is needed” to be an advantage; and,
58% report these volunteers’ “in-depth knowledge of organizational background, history or culture” to be an advantage.
Respondents also reported challenges in working with senior volunteers that are unique to or more common in their demographic. The three most common challenges are cognitive and physical challenges, knowledge or comfort gaps, and seasonality in desired volunteer work, though this last finding is likely more common to regions with extreme weather.
Understanding Seniors’ Motivations
According to the volunteer program leaders in our study, it is important to recognize and understand the reasons that seniors are drawn to volunteerism as well as what concerns may prevent them from engaging. The reasons that seniors may want to volunteer include:
● to meet new people;
● the satisfaction of giving back to their community;
● to cope with feelings of inactivity or isolation; and,
● to pass on knowledge or experience they have gained.
And reasons that seniors may not want to volunteer include:
● fear of demeaning assignments;
● not wanting to be supervised by someone younger than themselves;
● feeling burnt out after a lifetime of work; and,
● being too busy with family or other obligations.
Employing recruitment and retention efforts that speak directly to seniors’ motivations and concerns will increase the likelihood of the program being one that seniors value and promote to their friends, which is critical given that recruiting seniors from social networks was the most successful strategy according to eighty-three percent of respondents.
Cross Generational Volunteerism
The professionals we heard from imparted on us the importance of intergenerational collaboration where volunteers of all ages are mingling and collaborating with one another. Often, intergenerational collaboration can be accomplished by avoiding limiting volunteer tasks to certain age groups. When volunteers of all ages intermingle, an effective environment is created supporting their organization. Volunteers from different generations bring an eclectic blend of knowledge, skills, and experience to your organization.
Senior volunteerism, thoughtfully managed, represents a powerful strategy to counter the all-too-common marginalization of older people in the US while significantly boosting the capacity of nonprofit organizations to serve their communities. And according to research by Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency responsible for the nation’s volunteer and service efforts, it can literally improve lives: “Senior Corps volunteers report much higher self-rated health scores, which is considered a valid marker of actual health, compared to older adults in similar circumstances who do not volunteer. They also reported feeling significantly less depressed and isolated compared to non-volunteers.” The opportunity is to design volunteer programs that intentionally tap the considerable strengths of seniors and to foster nonprofit organizational cultures that welcome and celebrate seniors’ contributions.