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Creating baby boomer-friendly volunteer opportunities
24 January 2006
by D. Scott Martin

The world of volunteerism is going through a difficult transition as the GI Generation ages out of our programmes and we look to younger generations to take their place. William Bridges in his bestseller, Managing Transitions, speaks of transition as consisting of three phases: endings, the neutral zone and new beginnings. Change begins with grieving what we have lost -- and we in volunteerism have lost a lot.

The GI Generation was an extraordinary group of volunteers. They filled our daytime positions for the last 30 years and were instrumental in enabling our organizations to grow and expand. Their attitudes towards volunteering and patterns of service have helped to shape volunteerism into what it is today. Unfortunately, as members of the GI Generation retire from our programs, they leave behind an infrastructure that worked well for them but is unlikely to meet the needs of future generations. As volunteer managers, we are experiencing the painful ending of volunteerism as we have known it. We are also grieving lost friends.

Many of us are in the first stage of transitioning -- grieving endings. Others may have entered the second stage, what Bridges calls the "neutral zone." This is the chaotic period following the ending of the old ways and preceding the emergence of something new. It is an uncomfortable time, characterized by disorientation, self-doubt and fear. It is not uncommon, Bridges says, for people to become polarized during this stage. Some of us want to rush forward with new ideas. Others want to hold tight to the "way we have always done it." In time, though, we begin to leave behind outmoded ideas and take small, hesitant steps in a new direction. Slowly a new future begins to emerge from the crucible of the neutral zone.

Whatever stage the individual manager is in, the fact remains that volunteers are changing. Do we try to shoehorn them into existing structures or learn to adapt?

Just what do baby boomers want?

Baby boomers want choice. They want to be presented with a variety of options so that they can pick the one that most closely matches their unique needs. Car manufacturers get this. There are now websites, for example, where potential buyers can create the car of their dreams. You pick the colors; you pick the accessories, all with the simple click of a mouse. Will boomers want anything less from volunteering?

Assess your portfolio of opportunities

If your organization's volunteer opportunities were a car lot, what would it look like? Would it be heavy in sedans, but lacking in SUVs and hybrids? If so, you probably aren't going to attract many baby boomers. Make it your goal to create a continuum of volunteer opportunities. Your opportunities should offer potential volunteers a range of options across the following four dimensions:

  • Skill Level. For example, does the opportunity require previous experience/education, extensive pre-service training, brief on-the-job training or no prior experience and skills at all? Highly educated Baby Boomers are likely to want opportunities that are challenging. Of course, some may be content with more routine, less stressful, jobs too.
  • Duration. For example, is the duration of the job ongoing, short-term, or one-time? Remember that baby boomers will be pursuing multiple life-options, including paid work. They are unlikely to be able to commit for long periods of time.
  • Scheduling. For example, do volunteers have to serve at specific times, specific times but with some flexibility or whenever the volunteer's schedule permits? Baby boomers will want to show up for volunteering when it is convenient for them. Some jobs obviously cannot accommodate this, but others may if restructured.
  • Opportunity for self-initiation. For example, must the volunteer do what he or she is told to do? May he or she take independent action if approved before hand? Or, can the volunteer do what he or she thinks is best as long as regular reports are submitted? Many baby boomers have held management positions and are used to making their own decisions. They are likely to want opportunities where they can exercise some measure of independent judgment. While this is possible for some volunteers and some assignments, giving up the control will prove very difficult for many volunteer managers.

If your current volunteer opportunity portfolio is heavy in low-skill, ongoing, inflexible and closely supervised jobs, then developing a continuum of opportunities will be achieved only by intentionally creating opportunities at the other end of the spectrum. Undoubtedly, some Boomers may be interested in the more traditional jobs, but certainly not in the numbers as before. Wherever possible, volunteer managers should try to restructure these opportunities.

Restructuring current opportunities

So, how do you go about restructuring a traditional opportunity into one that is short-term and flexible? Here are several strategies volunteer managers are using:

  • Substitution. If it just has to be done every day, week or month, try creating the position of "substitute." These are volunteers who are willing to be on-call and fill-in temporarily for volunteers in traditional jobs as their schedules permit.
  • Job Sharing. This is where you assign two volunteers to the same opportunity. They may be given the same responsibilities, or different ones depending on their individual skills. You might identify the two volunteers to job share or you could ask the new volunteer to recruit a job-sharing friend. The volunteers follow a prearranged schedule or work it out among themselves week by week.
  • Rotation. Under this option four volunteers might take turns filling a volunteer assignment, each working for a period of just three months out of the year. Such an arrangement might work well for snowbirds or seasonal workers.
  • Segmentation. Can a labor intensive position be broken down into more manageable short-term opportunities? For example, a special event coordinator might be replaced by several short-term volunteers each working on one piece of the overall work plan.
  • Team Volunteering. Here you assign multiple volunteers to the same client, each having a specialized function. For example, instead of just one volunteer being assigned to a homebound senior, a care team is created. Perhaps one volunteer likes giving emotional support, another handling finances and a third doing housecleaning. No one volunteer has to do it all making the load lighter for everyone.
  • Telecommuting. Here the volunteer provides the service from home or some other off-site location using the Internet, phones or fax. A good example of the application of this strategy is in the area of mentoring. School-based mentoring can be a fairly inflexible assignment. However, volunteers who can not come into the school on a regular basis can still participate through e-mentoring, the exchange of emails over the Internet. Whether the volunteer is at work, overseas on vacation or at home, all they need to do is to get on their laptop and send off an email to their mentee. E-mentoring is not a replacement for face-to-face mentoring, but it can be a way to involve a greater range of volunteers in the experience.