Soaring Rates for Boomer Volunteers

Cecily O'Connor

Baby Boomers are hearing the call to serve their communities.

Yet their benevolence could ring hollow if organizations don’t make efficient use of their skill sets, according to a recent report by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

A boomer volunteers at Experience Corps. (Copyright Alex Harris)

"The boomer wave signals one of the largest opportunities the nonprofit sector has ever had to expand its pool of resources," said David Eisner, chief executive officer of the corporation. "Only the nonprofits that retool their ability to engage citizens will reap that reward.”

Americans born between 1946 and 1964 are volunteering at higher rates than their ancestors — and seeking higher skill assignments that keep them engaged. The report, which used current population survey data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau in 1974, 1989 and from 2002 to 2006, found that three out of every 10 boomers who volunteer today leave their organizations each year.

But those volunteers who participate 12 weeks or more annually are most likely to serve year after year, with retention of 79 percent versus 53 percent for those who serve two or fewer weeks per year, according to the report.

Some organizations have been practicing what the corporation is now preaching for some time. Joan Brown, volunteer and employee programs manager at San Rafael, Calif.-based Civic Center Volunteers, which aids local county government, said her organization has consistently boasted high retention.

“Because this is county government we have a lot of ‘real work’ kind of jobs, so I have always been fortunate in being able to attract high-caliber people with experience,” said Ms. Brown, who started her organization 28 years ago. “Retention is not a problem in general if you set up clear expectations. We have a contract for our volunteers and treat them as paid staff. We know what their needs, are and try and design jobs to meet their expectations.”

Helping hands

The report predicted a surge of Baby Boomers will raise the number of older adults in volunteer work by half before 2020, and double the number of older adult volunteers by the year 2036.

Boomers’ penchant for volunteering is generally tied to their education level and propensity to have children later in life, the report found. Once their children leave, boomers could maintain relatively high volunteer rates because of their higher education levels, expectations that they will work later in life than previous generations, and good health.

“It’s really clear that boomers are looking for opportunities to make a real, measurable difference in their communities,” said Stefanie Weiss, communications director for Experience Corps, which relies on older individuals to tutor and mentor elementary school students struggling to learn to read.

Overall, three volunteer activities appear to hold considerable appeal for boomers, the report said.  In particular, three-fourths of Baby Boomer volunteers who engage in professional activities, such as managing people or projects, continue volunteering the following year.  Other activities with high volunteer retention rates were music or some other type of performance (70.9 percent) and tutoring, mentoring and coaching (70.3 percent).

Conversely, boomer volunteers who engage in general labor or supply transportation regularly drop out of volunteering, with 55.6 percent continuing to volunteer the next year, according to the report.

Word-of-mouth has helped Experience Corps, which has a 70 percent retention rate, recruit older individuals, Ms. Weiss said. The organization, which operates in 20 U.S. cities, is mindful that boomers see themselves as an integral part of the work Experience Corps provides in schools. The group is careful not to use language like “senior” or even “volunteer” that boomers feel diminishes their role, Ms. Weiss said.

“We like to (refer to them) as Experience Corps members,” she said.

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