-A +A

Boomers and Beyond: 12 Best Practices Vital to Volunteer Resources in the Future

| Share |

It seems increasingly complex to offer what the different generations of volunteers want, particularly Baby Boomers and Millennials: high impact volunteer opportunities, a range of choices of positions, ways to apply their workplace skills and more. The good news is there is a wealth of research on the topic. The bad news is that many of today’s leaders of volunteers don't have the time to sort through the gigabits of information on generation change, are puzzled by (or sick of) the hype on Boomers, and face real barriers in implementing the necessary modifications in their organizations.

How does the body of research distill into straightforward best practices for engaging Boomers and the rest of the new wave of volunteers? What is hype and what needs critical attention?  Where should you start in order to bring your whole organization aboard? In this e-Volunteerism feature, co-authors Colleen Fritsch, Lee George, Mary Quirk and Terry Straub explore these questions through an initiative of the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA). The MAVA initiative, the authors reveal, is putting research on Boomers into practice by volunteer resource managers.

Volunteer Tom Tifferman describes himself as "difficult."  He is quick to clarify that he does not have a difficult personality; he is just very selective in what he wants to do as a volunteer.

“Want-to-be” volunteer Barb Axel spent the first month after retiring going to organizations with her resume with the plan to seamlessly go from paid work to volunteering – and had no takers.  

Most leaders of volunteers have met someone similar to Tom or Barb and will agree that what volunteers are looking for is changing. Fortunately, there’s a large body of research on the largest population group today – Baby Boomers – and what they want as volunteers. To assist in the process of putting this valuable research into action, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA, www.mavanetwork.org) has boiled it down to key tips and resources, ideal for busy leaders of volunteers to pick up and use.

There are clear best practices in gaining success with Boomers and other volunteers today. However, for continued success, organizations need to create strategies that will allow them to become learning organizations, able to understand and respond to the changes in volunteer expectations.

The automotive industry has changed, the pharmaceutical industry has changed, the cosmetics industry has changed. Have you?

"More than once I've heard a Boomer volunteer say, 'I don't have to do this here, you know, there are other places I can volunteer.' Compare that to my Traditionalist volunteer who has been left in the dust due to technology – he refuses to get a computer and our program has gone paperless, so he doesn't get the electronic communications everyone else gets. Despite his frustration, he does not quit."

– Terry Straub, MAVA Boomer Task Force Member

Many of our traditional volunteer management systems were developed in the 1970s and 1980s when the bulk of volunteers were from the Greatest and Traditional Generations (those born before 1946). These systems were well designed for generations who are loyal, understand sacrifice, and are willing to step up to the plate to do what needs to be done. As the proportion of this population has decreased and following generations are becoming the majority, it should be no surprise that what volunteers want has changed. 

The generational divide begun in the 1960s between Boomers and previous generations is still alive and well in volunteerism. Boomers, in varying degrees, are saying (like the infamous 2000 Fortune Magazine article title1) "candy striper, my ass"2 -- and are seeking higher impact volunteer opportunities.

So what needs to change? We do, informed by the research. The amount of research on generational differences would stretch to the moon and back or fill gigabytes. To help put this research into action, MAVA created "12 Best Practices for Engaging Boomers and Future Generations of Volunteers.” These best practices were developed by a MAVA Task Force on Engaging Boomer Volunteers, composed of leaders of volunteers from government and nonprofit agencies and staff from volunteerism support organizations (Hands On, United Way and Senior Corps). The task force culled through the vast amount of research, convened two symposiums of volunteer leaders throughout Minnesota, and reviewed the responses. In this article, we present the results of that work.

12 Best Practices for Engaging Boomers and Future Generations of Volunteers

“These best practices have been around for awhile. We need to concentrate on the best practices more now because volunteers are expecting them more now. Boomers are looking at every one of these and we need to do it right. We need to empower volunteer managers to make these changes.”

– Jackie Connolly, MAVA Boomer Task Force Member

  1. Understand volunteers’ deep-seated need to have impact and use that understanding in all facets of how you involve them as volunteers.
  2. Focus the volunteer interview on learning the prospective volunteer’s passions, mutually designing his/her volunteer role and helping the volunteer determine if your organization is the right place to realize the impact he/she wants to have.
  3. Offer a wide choice of volunteer opportunities in all aspects of the organization’s operations.
  4. Include some short-term and seasonal volunteer positions to align with current volunteer availability.
  5. Offer skills-based volunteer opportunities to maximize what volunteers can bring to the organization.
  6. Develop volunteer position descriptions that are engaging and show impact.
  7. Move volunteers into project leadership roles. Be open to project ideas that volunteers propose.
  8. Develop appealing volunteer recruitment messages, working through your organization’s networks. Cultivate prospects and be highly visible on the Web.
  9. Re-frame traditional volunteer “supervision” to “leading” volunteers and offering collegial support. Identify high potential volunteers and cultivate them to take on additional responsibility.
  10. Re-frame volunteer recognition to respond to the values that current volunteers place on having impact and on being life-long learners.
  11. Be an instigator for these organizational changes. Identify your champions for change. Start small in a part of the organization open to innovation and then market the success with colleagues in other parts of the organization.
  12. Create systems to monitor changes in volunteer expectations and become a learning organization that adapts to changing needs of volunteers.

Is It Just about the Boomers?

Are these just good volunteer management practices, or just good volunteer management practices for Boomers? If we ignore the Boomers, can we find the "good ol' volunteers" in another generation? 

"Boomers are the first generation to really look at ‘what’s in it for me.’ Their education makes them different, so they will research organizations before visiting. I do think that their shopping skills are prevalent, and they’ll shop till they find the right organization, so if we’re not prepared to accept their skills, they’ll find someone who will. Previous generations stuck with us for the ‘common good;’ Boomers can and will find other organizations if their needs aren’t met "

– Todd Jasin, MAVA Boomer Task Force Member

The MAVA Boomer Task Force says these are best practices for Boomers and all following generations.  The Boomers are the leading edge of potential volunteers expecting this new form of volunteer engagement. Although Generation Xers and Millennials have their own characteristics, the “12 Best Practiceswill also propel the changes needed to invite their participation. 

Experience from the field indicates the main differences between Boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials are not the best practices themselves, but how those best practices are implemented. Specifically, there are different preferred forms of – and expected speed of – communication between the generations. For example, if you are going to involve Millennials, be ready to text on cell phones or use Facebook, and to respond right away – electronically. The most important caveat on applying these best practices to Gen Xers and Millennials is becoming a learning organization that is ready to make changes as volunteer expectations change.

The “B” Word: What Is Hype? What Is Real?

What is the big deal about Boomers and retirement? Or, to be politically correct, about Boomers and leaving paid work? Clearly, Boomers are currently volunteering and it is misleading to think that we must wait for them to retire before they volunteer. In 2009, 22.8 million Baby Boomers in the U.S. dedicated 3.1 billion hours of volunteer service.3
Are Boomers going to retire? Most Boomers say they expect to work for pay of some type in retirement,4 although whether that will happen is yet to be seen. Setting aside the hype on Boomers and retirement, there are three important reasons why leaders of volunteers should be watching Boomers and retirement volunteering:

“I am tired of hearing about the Boomers and retirement. They are not retiring, and they are not volunteering as promised… We have always had Boomer volunteers. I don’t know what the big deal is.”

–MAVA Boomer Workshop Participants

  1. The sheer number of Boomers. Historically, when volunteers retire they volunteer more hours per week. United States data for 2008-2009 indicated that people 65 years of age volunteered a median of 90 hours per year compared to the average of 51 hours per year for all ages. 5 Demographically, the portion of the U.S. population age 65+ is expected to double over the next 20 years.6 Growth in the 65+ age group is also expected in most developed countries around the world.7 This rapid growth offers the potential for large increases in the amount of time volunteered.
  2. It is up to us to encourage a large number of Boomers to volunteer more when they retire. One research study found that although 62% of Boomers said they would likely volunteer more after retirement, only 30% agreed fully that they expect to volunteer more in retirement.8 This is the challenge being laid at our feet: Can we create the high-impact, leadership volunteer opportunities to entice the Boomer generation to volunteer in record numbers when they retire?
  3. Organizations that now depend on retiree volunteers could be left in the dust if they don't change systems to attract the upcoming pool of retirees. Over the next 10 years, Boomers will increasingly become the largest demographic in the valuable pool of retirees that many programs rely on heavily.

Renovate to Invigorate: Can a Middle Manager Make Change?

The problem today is not awareness of the needed changes for today's volunteer; rather, it’s the gap between awareness and change. Meeting the expectations of today's volunteers requires changes in the whole organization, not just the volunteer department.

“Some days it is hard to go to work because I know how my organization needs to change, but it is so far from being able to make those changes.” 

–MAVA Member

Volunteer management professionals need to see themselves as change agents; even as middle managers, we should realize that one doesn't have to be at the top of the organizational structure to create change. The future of our organizations’ ability to attract volunteers is dependent on each organization retooling to embrace the “12 Best Practices for Engaging Boomers and Future Generations of Volunteers.” The MAVA Boomer Task Force pooled their collective experience in gaining organizational buy-in and identified these approaches:

  1. See yourself as a leader and a change agent. Build your leadership skills. If you are not in a top management position, realize the power of leading from the middle.
  2. Identify “champions” in your organization. These staff members can pilot new ideas and assist in helping influence other staff to give it a try.
  3. Find opportunities to learn more about the specific work and challenges confronting your staff members in order to build your understanding of their perspectives and to create a working relationship for implementing change.

    • Run ideas by staff you trust – and who trust you – to get their input/suggestions so you can build your case for retooling.
    • To effect change, identify who in the organization needs to know and what they need to know.
    • Know your audience and customize your message.
    • Anticipate staff resistance and be prepared to share benefits for the organization.
  4. Use focused conversations to learn about your organization and to create change. For example:

    • Fact Finding: What projects are not being completed due to staffing resources?
    • Feeling Finding: What do you believe will be the impact of the decision?
    • Magic Wand: If you could snap your fingers and fix everything, what would be different?
    • Tell-me-more: Can you tell me more about the results you are looking for?
    • Third Party: One of the managers in another area feels that managing new volunteers is a key issue. What do you think?
    • Checking: If I understand you correctly, your greatest concerns are…?
  5. Market your successes. Tell the stories and recognize staff who lead the way.

Creating Widespread Change – The MAVA Way

To make the most of the talents of today’s volunteers, we need to change volunteer engagement strategies across sectors and geography. MAVA has taken a multifaceted approach, which can be replicated in other parts of the country:

“Organizations don’t have to adapt to the changing expectations of the next generations of volunteers. But these volunteers bring with them the opportunity to build organizational capacity in a way none of us could afford to do without them.”

– Lee George, MAVA Boomer Task Force Member

  • Offer a full-day training curriculum on mastering the skills to implement the Best Practices for engaging Boomers and following generations. This workshop has been offered 11 times in 8 Minnesota communities with 99% of participants reporting being more prepared to engage Boomers as volunteers following the workshop.
  • Offer shorter workshops to increase awareness of changes and provide resources on specific changes, such as involving volunteers in leadership roles.
  • Widely distribute the Best Practices and tips through electronic media.
  • Work with service sectors, such as Meals on Wheels, on implementing new approaches within the sector.
  • Craft a letter to the Executive Directors of MAVA members, highlighting the opportunities and the need to refocus volunteer leadership to engage the next generations of volunteers.

MAVA held two symposiums in St. Paul (October 27, 2008) and St. Cloud (January 27,2009) to discuss Boomers and future generations. Here are tips from the leaders of volunteers who attended those discussions.

Change in a Changing World 

Once your organization makes these changes, are they set for the next 20 years?  No.  The No. 1 lesson learned from our current situation is that constant adjustments are needed in order to avoid a large, tedious and arduous realignment between volunteer expectations and organizational readiness. As the world changes, so will volunteers.  The key to moving into the future is to create a learning organization that:

“As leaders of volunteers, we need to stop talking about change and get down to the business of making change.”

– Jay Haapala, MAVA Board Member

  • Monitors changes in volunteerism and in the external environment. The Volunteer Resources Manager and executive staff regularly engage colleagues and stakeholders in conversations about what is changing and how they are responding.
  • Has a culture that embraces change with the internal flexibility and readiness to make adjustments.

The twin challenges facing today's nonprofit and governmental organizations is both to implement the changes the Boomers and generations beyond expect and to create the internal capability to become a learning organization that adjusts and realigns as those expectations evolve.

For information on research on Boomers, the MAVA initiative to engage Boomers and future generations, and the training curriculum to put these best practices into action go to www.mavanetwork.org or contact Mary Quirk at office@mavanetwork.org. And you are welcome to join us at the May 18 – 20, 2011 MAVA Conference in St Cloud, MN!

Readers from outside the United States:  We would like to hear how your experiences compare to this article.



1Jason Tanz with Theodore Spencer, "Candy Striper, My Ass! A culture clash is looming as a high-powered wave of retiring executives meets the genteel world of volunteerism,” Fortune Magazine, August 14, 2000.  http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2000/08/14/285558/index.htmAccessed June 26, 2010.

2 Note for Millennials: A Candy Striper is a nickname for hospital volunteers derived from the red-and-white striped jumpers that female volunteers traditionally wore in the United States. These uniforms resembled stick candy. This term originated in the 1940s.

3Volunteering in America.  http://www.volunteeringinamerica.gov/special/Baby-Boomers-(born-1946-1964). Accessed June 26, 2010.

4 "Baby Boomers Envision Retirement II," AARP, 2002, http://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/econ/boomers_envision.pdf. Accessed 6/26/10

5 Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Volunteering in the United States 2009,” http://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm. Accessed July 26, 2010.

6 "Demographic Profile Age 65+, MetLife Mature Market Institute, p. 1, http://www.metlife.com/assets/cao/mmi/publications/Profiles/mmi-65+-demographic-profile.pdf. Accessed July 26, 2010.

7 "Aging World 2008: International Populations Reports,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Commerce, p. 10,  http://www.census.gov/prod/2009pubs/p95-09-1.pdf,  Accessed July 26, 2010.

8 "Baby Boomers Envision Retirement II," AARP, 2002, http://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/econ/boomers_envision.pdf, Accessed June 26, 2010.

Thank you to:

  • Funders to MAVA for this initiative: F.R. Bigelow Foundation, Initiative Foundation, Morgan Family Foundation, Otto Bremer Foundation Stevens Square Foundation and St. Paul Foundation.
  • The MAVA Task Force on Engaging Boomers as Volunteers:
  • Gayle Alexander, AnokaCountySocial Services
  • Jackie Connolly, HennepinCounty Human Services & Public Health
  • Julie Dyste, Greater Twin Cities United Way
  • Colleen Fritsch, DARTS
  • Lee George, Brain Injury Association of Minnesota
  • Todd Jasin, Greater Twin Cities United Way
  • Jennifer Halberg, Catholic Charities Winona
  • Tom Hyder, Vital Aging Network
  • Sherilyn Moe, Minnesota Board on Aging
  • Laura Newby, Hands On Twin Cities
  • Mary Quirk, MAVA
  • Terry Straub, University of Minnesota Extension -- HennepinCounty Master Gardeners
  • Janet Triplett, ExperienceCorps, Volunteers of America of MN
  • The MAVA Strategic Directions Committee chaired by Judie Russell and MAVA staff Katie Bull.
  • MAVA Task Force member Jackie Connolly for her work developing the approaches under “Renovate to Invigorate.”


I couldn't agree with the thesis in this article more! In my work as an organizational change consultant who specializes in volunteer engagement innovation, I am constantly surprised about how little our volunteer world has changed. Truly it is the definition of insanity in action, if we just try harder we will get a different result! And think how hard it is to embrace change when we haven't done so in so long. It is like asking the driver of a covered wagon to use a GPS.

It is equally important to engage Baby Boomer volunteers and the generations that follow them in the innovation process. Let them lead change initiatives; this is precisely the work that they want do do. We have to be authentic in this process and collaborate with volunteers from the get go.

What is possible is incalculable. In had an interesting discussion last week with a new Volunteer Engagement Director who had been an Executive Director for small nonprofits where staff did almost everything. She said, "I never realized what is possible with volunteers leading change; new initiatives, improved leadership development strategies, and the capacity to make it happen".

Our advice to our clients is to start small. Those champions that already exist are just waiting to be asked to lead change. Once you plant the seeds of change, you will begin to create a tipping point for others within your organization to embrace change.

This is the work that we were meant to do. To be agents of change while adding capacity to organizations, it just doesn't get any better than that. Thank you MAVA for this great report.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><br><br /><p>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.