Keys to attracting boomer volunteers: ‘They crave experience’ (and want to be recognized)

As a baby boomer, I found the insights offered about my generation at a recent conference a bit embarrassing.

I was with 400-plus people at the “Boomers and Civic Engagement: Opportunities and Challenges” conference at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Attendees were mostly nonprofit leaders searching for ideas to attract boomer volunteers; as boomers near retirement age, they offer a large pool of potential help.

Marketing consultant and author Margaret Mark told the audience that boomers don’t seem to have a sense of obligation or duty to volunteer. Instead, boomers might choose to help. “And they want to be recognized and appreciated at every turn.”

So how do nonprofits attract boomers? Bottom line, said Mark: Sell volunteering as a new experience. “The most important insight we can gather from the marketplace is that boomers buy experience. They crave experience.”

(Think Peace Corps, she said. “Within all that idealism and optimism is a mega-hit of experience.”)

Mark showed an ad she helped develop for a retired and senior volunteer program. It reframed volunteering around pleasure, experience and fun, she said. A photo showed a smiling man with his arms around two young children, with the tag line: “Volunteering: Think of it as a face-lift for your spirit.”

Demand rises as volunteer numbers decline

Elizabeth Pederson was probably typical of those attending. She supervises Catholic Charities’ senior dining sites and Meals on Wheels programs in the St. Cloud Diocese, and she is getting a double whammy. Demand for services is up as the population ages, and her traditional volunteers are scarcer as they get older and frailer.

“Some of our volunteers are older than the people they are delivering to,” said Pederson, whose programs depend on more than 1,000 volunteers at multiple sites.

Conference attendees got a chance to brainstorm how to boost boomer volunteering, and ideas abounded.

Judy Treharne, vice president of organizational development for Fairview Red Wing Health Services, said some 55- to 65-year-old boomers have enough money to retire and volunteer but don’t retire because they need the health insurance associated with their jobs. Speaking for herself, she floated the idea of creating a health-insurance pool across nonprofits, so those who volunteer a certain number of hours could buy in at affordable rates.

Bonnie Esposito, executive director of AccountAbility Minnesota, and Eva Treuer, volunteer programs manager for Neighbors, Inc., suggested a Parade of Nonprofits similar to a Parade of Homes. The idea: Encourage people to recruit members of their social network (extended family, church members) and arrange a tour of nonprofits to see what is available.

Donna Osterbauer, volunteer services coordinator for HealthPartners and Regions Hospital, suggested volunteer job sharing. She’s already doing it. Her emergency-room volunteers have each others’ names and phone numbers; if they need to switch days, they call each other.

“It helps with retention,” Osterbauer said. “It works with their schedule.”

Mary Quirk, volunteer resources leadership project manager for the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administrators (MAVA), suggested a social networking site where volunteers would post their skills and nonprofits could seek them out. (The Corporation for National and Community Service already does it for AmeriCorps volunteers, Quirk said.)

Spreading the word

MAVA and the Vital Aging Network (VAN) are leading the conference follow-up. They are both part of the Invisible Force, a nonprofit collaborative promoting volunteering.

Quirk said MAVA would hold two symposiums around the state to share ideas from the conference with other nonprofits. (The times and places are to be determined; one will be in St. Cloud.) MAVA will follow the symposiums with smaller, regional workshops. (Watch the web site.)

Tom Hyder, VAN coordinator, said VAN would review the research and ideas from the conference and gather Invisible Force agencies to work on the next steps. Other members are: AARP, Hands On Twin Cities, Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota, The Minnesota Alliance With Youth, ServeMinnesota, Twin Cities Public Television, and the Volunteer Centers of Minnesota.

The Harvard School of Public Health and the MetLife Foundation sponsored the conference, which was the third one nationally, following New York City and Miami.

Sibyl Jacobson, MetLife Foundation’s president and chief executive officer, said Minnesota was chosen because it has been a bellwether of innovation in civic involvement and it has a strong nonprofit community. 

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 05/15/2008 - 07:09 am.

    Rising gasoline prices for retiring boomers on fixed incomes is also a factor that cannot be overlooked. My parents both volunteer in their community, but the high cost of gasoline is forcing them to rethink their schedules. (They live in a rural area, so public transit is not an option.)

    This is particularly true for those programs that depend on volunteers driving other seniors to appointments or delivering meals to them.

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