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An army of volunteers
22 June 2004
by Abigail Trafford

Washington: Wishful thinking: Retired people are prime candidates for volunteering because they have the time and are at a stage of life when they want to "give back." With the baby boomers reaching retirement age, there will be a huge pool of willing individuals to volunteer their services and strengthen communities.

The reality may not be so rosy, suggests a report released last week by the Harvard School of Public Health and the MetLife Foundation. Entitled "Reinventing Aging: Baby Boomers and Civic Engagement," the report cautions against counting on the boomers as a windfall for volunteer organizations.

The potential is there. But to tap into it, organizations will have to change the culture of volunteering.

For starters, retired people actually volunteer less than younger adults. The amount of time most volunteers contribute is very modest, on average half an hour a week. Only about 12 percent of volunteers are intensely involved and spend more than 10 hours a week on these activities.

All along, baby boomers have volunteered less, voted less and been less engaged in civic activities than their parents. What is suddenly going to turn them into community builders?

Part of the answer lies with boomers. As a group, they are healthier, wealthier and better educated than their parents. They have seen gender roles blur as more women entered the workforce. They are also more diverse, with greater economic disparities.

Only a small percentage think of the "retirement years" as a period of leisure. More than 85 percent of boomers expect to work after their primary job ends, according to AARP research cited in the Harvard-MetLife report. For most boomers, any significant participation in community affairs is likely to be viewed in the continuum of work, rather than as a fill-in for leisure.

Not all boomers are able or willing to volunteer. One-third see the decades after 65 as a period of economic hardship; they must work to survive. At the other end, 13 percent say they will have plenty of money and will be glad to be free of the responsibility of work. Interestingly, this elite segment is less likely to volunteer than other boomers.

In between are those with moderate to significant retirement savings. Many with higher incomes say that they would like to work "part-time for interest and enjoyment, if not for financial reason," according to studies by Robert H. Prisuta, AARP's associate research director.

These in-between boomers are probably the target group for a new career in community service. They will be looking for meaningful work. They bring to volunteer agencies a degree of professionalism and a workplace mentality of setting goals and being rewarded. At this stage, people are not so much after success as significance. Instead of getting ahead, they want to make a difference.

How prepared are volunteer agencies to engage aging boomers?

"The short answer is not very much," said Mei Cobb, senior vice president of The Points of Light Foundation and Volunteer Center National Network. "There is a looming mismatch between the skills and desires of the boomers and available volunteer jobs. Too often, volunteers are asked to perform marginal jobs that are not essential to the mission of the agency and that don't engage the retiree. There's little professional management of volunteers and virtually no planning to gear up for the wave of retiring boomers."

So far, nonprofit agencies don't seem very interested in change. A survey of leaders of volunteer organizations by the National Council on the Aging (NCOA) found that while they all saw potential in boomer volunteers, the vast majority had no strategic plan to attract them. In fact, one-third reported that they were not interested in making any changes. "There's a picture of inertia at this stage," said Thomas E. Endres, director of the NCOA's Civic Engagement Initiative.

Meanwhile, a lot of innovation in volunteer work is taking place at the grassroots level, especially in churches and religious communities and in schools. Intergenerational initiatives are flourishing -- bringing young and old together to tackle problems from runaway kids to the plight of the whooping crane.

Out of this churning has emerged a hybrid, the paid volunteer: a person who has a major volunteer job and gets some kind of compensation. In this model, people may receive a stipend. They can earn tuition to go to school themselves or to pass on to a grandchild. They may get access to health coverage.

Paid volunteerism "is not an oxymoron," said William Galston with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "It is a very important model that needs to be accepted and expanded."

The genteel terrain of candy stripers and envelope stuffers has turned into a much more complicated landscape where public-private partnerships to provide needed services have blurred the line between volunteer and worker.

The standard for paid volunteerism is AmeriCorps, the national service program of more than 50,000 volunteers who work with nonprofit organizations, public agencies and religious groups to address community needs from school mentoring to building affordable housing. But less than 9 percent of its participants are over 50.

The Harvard-MetLife report is a call to action. "There is an opportunity to help boomers create a social legacy of profound importance. Their added years of life give them the chance. Their experiences in life give them the capability," concludes the report. "All of society will have a stake in the outcome."

From: Washington Post