Engaging Volunteers Across Generations

Posted Thursday, April 18th, 2019 by Sterling Volunteers Staff

No volunteer is like another, and the more you can tailor your programs to the unique needs of your volunteers, generational or otherwise, the better you can carry out your mission.

In a recent webinar, which can now be viewed on-demand, nonprofit expert, Beth Steinhorn President of VQ Volunteer Strategies, shared how being generationally savvy can benefit your volunteer program. She highlighted how easy it can be to overlook generational differences with a personal anecdote.

“A very close friend of ours invited me and my husband and kids to celebrate with her and her family,” Beth shared. “She had known us and my mother-in-law for many years, and knew that we often spent holidays together, so she generously extended the invite to my mother-in-law as well. I spoke with my mother-in-law and mentioned the invitation, and she was a little non-committal at that point. Much to my surprise she [later] said she didn’t really think that she’d been invited. I was puzzled because I distinctly remembered saying ‘and Karen would really love it if you would join us.’”

“Soon enough it became very clear to me: Karen, my friend, had not personally called my mother-in-law to invite her. For my mother-in-law’s generation, a second-hand invite was no invitation. Within a day or two, Karen phoned my mother-in-law, they had a lovely chat, the invitation was accepted, and a good time was had by all.”

“A personal ask means different things to different people, and their definitions are informed by their generational experiences,” shared Beth.

Engaging Traditionalists

Born 1901-1945 | ~75 million | 24.8% volunteer

The “Traditionalist” group combines The Greatest Generation and The Silent Generation. Traditionalists grew up in a time of economic turmoil, during or after the Great Depression and two world wars. They learned to deal with economic hardships through self-sacrifice and discipline which shaped their expectations when volunteering.

Key Takeaways

Traditionalists are practical, patient, loyal and hardworking. They typically respect authority, prefer structure and are patient before earning rewards. They’re willing to stay with one organization for years and are motivated by rewards such as potentially earning a seat on a committee.

Being a Traditionalist Gen-Mix Manager

  • Recognize their goals: Build a legacy
  • Offer them balance: Support them in shifting the balance
  • Understand their motivation: The satisfaction of a job done well

Engaging Baby Boomers

Born 1946-1964 | ~80 million | 30.7% volunteer

Baby Boomers worked to change the world in the 1960s, now, as they reach retirement age, they volunteer to leave a social legacy – an encore career, for a career-driven generation. They challenged how the volunteer programs their parents built worked, demanding shorter-term volunteer opportunities, more flexible time commitments and new career path opportunities.

Unlike the generations that preceded them, Baby Boomers grew up in economic prosperity, during a time dominated by suburban affluence and nuclear families. They saw the work week extended from 40 hours to 70 or more. They created the idea of “networking” and many other business concepts that have spilled over into the volunteering arena. They view volunteering through the lens of their career-driven lifestyle.

Key Takeaways

Baby Boomers value collaborative, high functioning teams. They’re ambitious, goal oriented, and work-focused. The impact of their work is important to them – they want to be partners and they want to be effective.

Being a Baby-Boomer Gen-Mix Manager

  • Recognize their goals: Build a stellar career
  • Offer them balance: Help them balance various opportunities and find personal meaning
  • Understand their motivation: Money, title recognition, the corner office

Engaging Generation X

Born 1965-1980 | ~65 million | 36.4% volunteer

They may be smaller in numbers, but more than a third of Generation X volunteered in 2017, accounting for more volunteers than any other generation. They have useful skills and increasingly more time to give.

Generation X grew up in a different world than their parents and grandparents. They were latchkey kids for whom it wasn’t uncommon to be raised by two working parents, divorced parents or a single parent.

This led to “Gen X-ers” having independent, entrepreneurial spirits. They may ask you not to look over their shoulder, but they also value immediate and ongoing feedback. They’re the generation that founded the tech industry and first started getting into video games. They value having fun in the workplace and appreciate multicultural settings.

Key Takeaways

Like Boomers, Generation X values knowing the impact of their work. As parents and professionals, they also need volunteer programs to leverage their time efficiently, personalizing the experience and allowing for flexible schedules. They also value opportunities for career-building.

Being a Generation X Gen-Mix Manager

  • Recognize their goals: Build a portable career
  • Offer them balance: Give them balance now, not when they are 65
  • Understand their motivation: Freedom is the ultimate reward

Engaging Millennials

Born 1981-1996 | ~83 million | 28.2% volunteer

Millennials were the first generation raised on community service, and it shows. They were the first generation of their age group to step up in record numbers and make changes in their communities – more than 1 in 4 volunteered in 2017. Much like their Boomer parents, Millennials are large in number, want to experience the impact of their work and challenge the volunteering status quo, but they also view volunteerism and nonprofit organizations a little differently than any other generation.

They came of age just as the gig economy was starting to take off, and that has influenced how they think about volunteering. They want flexibility and the ability to define and create their own parameters.

Millennials are “Free Agents” seeking to address a cause, even if it’s not with an organization. They won’t care about your brand unless you show that you have a real impact for a cause they care about.

Millennials are also a technology native generation, with a strong interest in social media, meaning they have a deep global connection, and that they’re often influenced by their peers’ decisions and behaviors, showing us that there may be opportunities for group or paired volunteering.

Key Takeaways

It’s important to continuously evolve the way volunteer retention is defined. Millennials may not want to commit to your current structure and roles, but they have so much to offer – they’re optimistic, energetic, passionate, globally connected and socially active.

When targeting millennials, it’s important to show the impact of their contributions, offer immersive experiences and provide opportunities that don’t require them to be on-site.

Being a Millennial Gen-Mix Manager

  • Recognize their goals: Parallel careers
  • Offer them balance: Work isn’t everything – flexibility is needed to balance schedule
  • Understand their motivation: Work that has meaning for them

Engaging Generation Z

Born 1997-2012 | ~76 million | 26.1% volunteer

Generation Z is our youngest generation. Most are still students and are just beginning to start volunteering. They’re also the most diverse generation ever, and, like millennials, Generation Z were raised on the idea of community service.

According to a recent study from the Pew Recent Center, the median among Generation Z will spend an average of 5 hours per day on their phone, and 59% have already been motivated to donate to charity through a social media message. One in five say that their impact on the world is an important issue in their daily life and more than 75% are very interested in gaining work experience through volunteering.

Millennials adapted to new technology as they grew up, but Generation Z were raised in a mobile environment. That experience shifts how they think about volunteering.

Key Takeaways

Volunteer programs need to be prepared to embrace this new wave of volunteers, and their technology skill set. Millennials may be similar in some ways, but it’s important to remember that Generation Z is more diverse and more technologically savvy than preceding generations.

Being a Millennial Gen-Mix Manager

As more members of Generation Z enter the volunteering sphere, we’ll gain more insight into what motivates them, and how we can better serve their generation as managers.

Finding Common Ground

Each generation’s unique experiences shape their motivations and volunteering expectations. The more you understand those nuances, the better you can engage across all generations.

Whether connecting with Baby Boomers or Generation Z-ers, do consider these common traits. Today’s volunteers:

  • Desire flexible schedules
  • Want to make only short-term commitments
  • Expect organizations to meet their needs
  • Value trust and want respect

Watch the Webinar On-Demand

To learn more about how you can create and maintain a diverse volunteer group that leverages the skills and talents of Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and beyond – view the on-demand version of the “Generational Trends in Volunteer Engagement” webinar.

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