Changes in working with volunteers: scary & energizing

logoAlmost 20 years ago, I co-presented at the national conference in Orlando by the Corporation for National Service. The presentation was regarding the emerging senior volunteer — the Baby Boomer. I was the representative from Generation X, another presenter was a Boomer himself, and the other presenter was of the then current senior age group. We thought it was a rather benign but important topic. We certainly had fun putting together our presentation via phone and email (we were in different parts of the USA and had never met face-to-face until the day of the presentation).

The day of the presentation came, and we had a full room waiting to hear us. Our presentation began, with much energy: we talked about how the emerging senior volunteer — the Baby Boomer — wanted to volunteer their professional skills, not just stuff envelopes. How they were willing to commit a lot of hours provided it came with a high-level of responsibility. How they weren’t interested in giving unselfishly as much as wanting to have a real impact and feel like, as a result of their volunteering, they had made a real difference. How this was a great opportunity for volunteering programs…. right?

We were all but booed out of the room.

The workshop attendees, who worked exclusively with senior volunteers, primarily from the “Greatest Generation,” did not hide their venom for our message, and about 15 minutes into our talk, we knew we were in trouble. Amid sighs and folded arms and scowls, attendees started raising their hands to comment and express their obvious frustration. They called these emerging senior volunteers “selfish” and “lazy,” even “un-American.” The characterizations would have never been said about an ethnic group, but it was open season on Boomers. One said, “I’m not changing, and if they don’t like it, they can go somewhere else.” Another said, “I would rather our current volunteers die off and our organization close than work with these people.” One added, to me, directly, in front of the whole group, “You don’t want to know what I think of your generation.”

It was, by far, the angriest, most hostile group I’ve ever addressed.

The only comfort was after the presentation was over, after most of the attendees had stormed out of the room: a woman came up to us in tears — literally crying — and shook all of our hands, saying “I’ve tried to say the same thing, and they were like this to me too.”

More than 10 years later, I shared most of the above via a blog because of an article in the Associated Press that confirmed all that we said at that presentation. The article said boomer volunteers “are increasingly seeking to use their professional skills as volunteers, eschewing office and administrative tasks and seeking roles in marketing, publicity, fund raising, and management.” You can see the article by going to archive.org and looking for this URL:
www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/03/04/business/AP-US-Retirement-Today-Volunteering.html

I’m reviving that blog, saved from a long-defunct platform, because I still think about this incident every time I get in front of a group or have a discussion about trends in volunteer management. In that previous blog, I also wrote:

  • I wonder what ever happened to all those very, very angry volunteer managers, who I don’t think hated boomer volunteers as much as they hated change. Did they quit their jobs? Did they begrudgingly change? Were they fired?
  • I’ve never worked with these “traditional” volunteers the AP article and others talk about, volunteers happy to do any mundane administrative tasks without question, who do whatever they are told without comment. I’ve been working with volunteers for many years, and they have always wanted something worthwhile through their service beyond just work to do.
  • I bet someone writes almost exactly this same story in five years in a major newspaper or wire service, implying it’s a “new trend.”

Of course, since that presentation, the management of volunteers has changed even more radically. I talked about this in May 2006 on my web site. And let’s be clear: innovations regarding management of volunteers aren’t really about technology. The innovation is using technology so that it is:

giving volunteers a bigger voice in what they do at an organization (and, in the end, actually giving them lots more to do, and even more responsibility, which they like very, very much), on engaging in activities that exude transparency and openness in all aspects of decision-making and management, and on being immediately responsive to volunteers’ and other supporters’ thoughts, suggestions and criticisms — and how not doing so isn’t because of a lack of resources but, rather, misdirected priorities and lack of transparency. Tiny nonprofit organizations with very little staff are doing extraordinary things with volunteers, and making the volunteers feel included and energized, not with pins and t-shirts but through greater and more meaningful involvement — and this movement is being fueled by inclusive uses of technology.

It makes for another big challenge to many people who are expected to successfully engage volunteers, but it’s also a big opportunity to raise the profile of volunteer managers within organizations. It makes volunteer management a lot more interesting.

Are you ready? Scared? Angry? Let’s hear from you in the comments below.

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4 thoughts on “Changes in working with volunteers: scary & energizing

  1. Nancy Hopkins

    I am so dealing with this “… giving volunteers a bigger voice in what they do at an organization (and, in the end, actually giving them lots more to do, and even more responsibility, which they like very, very much), on engaging in activities that exude transparency and openness in all aspects of decision-making and management, and on being immediately responsive to volunteers’ and other supporters’ thoughts, suggestions and criticisms.”

    I have decided to start small, asking a few volunteers who obviously want to take on this level of service. In doing so, these few volunteers are slowing becoming an integral part of department planning and strategy. This is a huge cultural shift in this organization regarding its perception of the role of volunteers.

    End result . . . volunteers engaged at a level they find satisfying, work pushed forward more efficiently, new ideas from a different perspective woven into planning, more positive volunteer voices in the community, and more.

    Reply
    1. jcravens Post author

      What you’re showing is the TRUE value of volunteers – it’s not, “Hey, let’s get some people to do this work over here for free!”, and you surely wouldn’t show the value of these volunteers in these new rules just as a dollar amount for every service hour provided. Good for you, Nancy! And thank you so much for commenting on my blog. Check back in later and tell me how it’s going – I’m truly interested.

      Reply
  2. Adrian

    I noticed that volunteering in most countries is a matter of time and choices and is growing when criysis and lowering when economic stability.
    Most volunteers are young or very old and in a way is very normal but I would rather empower the everyday volunteering spirit into people not volunteering as a profession.
    Interesting post anyway, keep up the good job!

    Reply
    1. jcravens Post author

      You seem to have misunderstood the blog. It’s not about making volunteering a profession. It’s about creating quality standards for those that manage volunteers. Because volunteers – young, old, and everything in between – deserve respect and the very best support. It’s about making volunteering welcoming for everyone, not just a select few. Interesting post anyone. Replies are always welcomed. Thanks for your comment.

      Reply

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