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Boomer volunteers in demand — along with strategies for keeping them

Wanted: Baby boomers to follow their passion. Compensation: Making a difference. Please inquire within.

Coming up with motivations like that to enlist baby boomers as community volunteers will be a goal as representatives of Minnesota organizations and nonprofits gather with boomers for a forum today in Minneapolis.

The forum’s goal: Crafting a successful plan for recruiting members of the 77-million-strong boomer generation for volunteerism where it’s needed. And giving them work they consider meaningful enough to bring them back the next year.

The concept of volunteering has been “soft” for too long, according to Jim Scheibel, a longtime promoter of volunteerism and the forum’s spokesman and moderator. “Part of the challenge is how we make the word ‘volunteer’ something powerful,” he said. He and others who will offer input have ideas for how to do that.

As the oldest baby boomers turn 62 this year, those in the market for volunteers have noticed. Four hundred available seats at the forum went like tickets to a Bob Dylan concert, leaving 100 others on a waiting list.

The sponsor of the forum is the Harvard School of Public Health — MetLife Foundation Initiative on Retirement and Civic Engagement, in collaboration with the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and the Minnesota Invisible Force Collaborative, made of up 10 organizations, including Minnesota AARP, the Vital Aging Network and Twin Cities Public Television. The collaborative will take the next step: To craft an action plan within a few weeks. The initiative’s report, “Reinventing Aging: Baby Boomers and Civic Engagement,” helps fuel the conversation. With their high level of education and business experience, the report concludes, boomers will have vast potential as a social resource as they leave career jobs.
Though there has been concern in public circles about baby boomers’ appetite for volunteering, a 2007 study by the Corporation for National and Community Service shows “the Me Generation” volunteering at higher rates than older generations from 2002 to 2006 and at higher rates than older generations volunteered at boomers’ same age.
The study also confirms conventional wisdom that boomers want to do things their way. For example, boomer influence has elevated volunteer work in schools to second place, ahead of civic, political, business and international organizations. (Volunteerism in religious institutions remains in first place.) Boomers returned at a lower rate than older volunteers to collecting, making or distributing clothing or food, the study showed. But coaching, tutoring and mentoring, along with providing professional or management services, brought them back at higher rates than their older counterparts. And experts consulted for the study agreed that it’s time for a “re-imagining” of volunteer possibilities.

Today’s forum will pose questions to make participants think, said Scheibel, a former St. Paul mayor and former director of AmeriCorps, VISTA and the National Senior Service Corps. “How can we tap boomers’ talents?” for example. And for individuals, “What am I looking for?” The answers might include time flexibility, travel or an opportunity to learn something new.

Some boomers like being part of the planning or feeling part of “the fabric of our communities — not always working with people exactly like them,” he said.  In some programs, volunteers do their jobs and also meet as a group — “to reflect together what their experience was and what more they might do.” Those are ideas nonprofits will be encouraged to consider, he said.

“The message is pretty clear that boomers want their work, their effort to make a difference,” he said. “People want to use their skills. As they retire or make a transition, some want an opportunity to work where their passion lies. It’s a great opportunity to do their dream job.”

Oh, and by the way, the title of his welcome message: “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.” 

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