Recruiting Older Volunteers

So much has changed in our lives during these last three years of a struggling economy, and of course the nonprofit sector is no exception. How and where you recruit volunteers has likely changed as well. As the summer winds down and the school year begins, this is a key recruiting season for volunteers, but simply assuming that the over-50 crowd is rested and ready for tapping as volunteers is naive. Here are a few considerations in today’s landscape.

  1. Employment. One of the best ways for a person to get a job at a nonprofit is to begin by volunteering there. Over time, the person’s talent and expertise may make them an ideal fit for a paid position when one is available. Meanwhile, you need to know whether the volunteer you’re recruiting is actually seeking paid work. Does this complicate your recruitment efforts-and either support, or detract from, them? Whether a positive or negative, the fact that is something you need to consider. If the person lands a full- or part-time job elsewhere, he/she may suddenly be unavailable to you.
  2. Echo careers. It’s increasingly common for workers over 50 to actually need a second career to bridge the gap between their professional years and affording retirement. The lucky Baby Boomers who can afford to completely and “officially” retire may actually be the exception, not the rule. Meanwhile, many parents are finding that their young-adult children need financial help. For a range of reasons, your older volunteers these days are likely to be balancing their volunteer time with at least a part-time job.
  3. “Voluntourism.” This is an emerging blend of two industries: for-profit travel/tour agents and nonprofit volunteering. Some volunteers–typically Baby Boomers with the money to travel but a desire to also ‘do good’ or perhaps justify their extravagance–combine a vacation with a working project. Does this trend affect your ability to recruit these volunteers, or, is there a way that your organization can re-vamp its projects to take advantage of the desire for this blended role? Volunteerism doesn’t have to involve just international travel, after all. How about local weekend getaways?
  4. Short and sweet. Always define the term of a volunteer’s obligation, and never assume more than 12 months at once. No one likes to sign on to an endless role forever. It’s far better to have a defined period of time, after which you can have an evaluation of successful adjustments to make-and the happy, engaged volunteer is likely to “re-up” for another stint. Don’t make the mistake of saying nothing and assuming you’re going to keep your gem of a volunteer forever.
  5. Making a difference. Many people seem overwhelmed by the pace and tenuous nature of our lives–and disenchanted by government that doesn’t seem to be helping. Demographers remind us that Baby Boomers tend to be frustrated idealists who still yearn to “make the world better.” Your ability to demonstrate that volunteering at your nonprofit makes a tangible, obvious, real-life difference is key.
  6. The power of work. To your advantage, the lines between work and leisure are blurring, too. Not unlike voluntourism, this is the positive feeling that work (i.e., delivering meals to the homebound) is a satisfying pleasure in itself. Meanwhile, is your organization paying people to perform work that could actually be done by unpaid workers if your recruitment was better managed, more focused? Factor in dependability, skills needed, and training, but this may be a winning idea as you survive these lean times.
  7. Leadership. A hierarchy of volunteers managing themselves can be very powerful, especially if your staff coordination resources are limited. Older volunteers likely have both leadership and management experience, and many seek to mentor and guide teams. Take a cue from the larger nonprofits and see if you can set up a hierarchy structure. With the right job descriptions in place, you can have seasoned volunteers interview the potential newcomers, train them, manage hours/shifts–all reducing the demands on your staff.
  8. Competition. Be realistic about who/what you’re competing with. We do ourselves (and our volunteers) a disservice if we forget that many exciting choices exist in the nonprofit sector. If the experience with you in the course of recruitment, training, the work itself, or the rewards afterward is unpleasant or frustrating, you run a very real risk of losing that volunteer. Meanwhile, the time a volunteer gives to you has to be balanced and juggled with potential health issues, family obligations, logistical/transportation issues, vacations, and hobbies.
  9. Skill-matching. Why not find a retired retail executive or manager to run your gift shop? Take a cue from SCORE and work on harnessing hard skills from older adults to build your nonprofit capacity.
  10. Opposites attract. Meanwhile, some older volunteers may seek a role that is entirely different from what they have experienced professionally. A woman who had a successful but high-pressure career as a CPA wanted a complete departure from that life in a new volunteer role involving color, sound and light; she loved helping a small nonprofit design and refurbish its office space.
  11. Friends of friends. One of your best resources for new volunteers are the personal networks your existing corps. When a volunteer is happily matched to the right role, it’s an easy step to ask him/her to help recruit others.
  12. Buddy system or family time. Spouses, sisters or other duos of older workers may specifically seek a volunteer experience as a team. We know of a 73-year-old grandmother seeking a role for herself and her nine-year-old grandson to do together during their weekly, limited, slot of time together. Be open and willing to consider such options; what you traditionally thought you could not accommodate could in fact be a chance to rewrite a volunteer job descriptions and strengthen your volunteer team.
  13. Measuring performance. Of course, every hour of time a volunteer gives you is a gift and must be respected as such. But this doesn’t mean there is an inherent perfection in the work of an unpaid person. Your volunteer process should include interviews, qualifications, promotions, and, yes, performance reviews. It may seem anathema to career nonprofit managers, but sometimes you have to “fire” a volunteer, too. Older workers from the corporate world understand this.
  14. Rewards and recognition. With many household budgets stretched thin, giving a volunteer an inscribed plaque feels a little dated. Gift cards for restaurants or retail, or even supermarkets, are always welcome, as is new technology, i.e., music players or tech gadgets.

As you well know, making the right match of a role to a specific volunteer is an art. Luck and perseverance have always been factors, and the uncertainties of life for virtually all of us in a weaker economy complicate an already challenging landscape. The extent to which you can design your recruitment strategy to thoughtfully consider the needs and expectations of a certain demographic–in this case, older adults–can only help in the months ahead.