Interview: Where Have All the Volunteers Gone?

Posted By editor in AHB Issue 2008 September/October | Back


People who grew up in Canada during the Great Depression and Second World War established a tradition of civic engagement that made us proud. They volunteered long hours in schools, churches and hospitals and they found ways to care for the poor and vulnerable in the community.

Their numbers, however, are dwindling. According to Statistics Canada, 67 per cent of volunteering is done by only five per cent of the population. In other words, a tiny group of committed Canadians – mostly volunteers in their 60s, 70s and 80s – are doing the bulk of the work. Now with 10 million baby boomers moving into retirement, trends suggest 50-somethings are not volunteering in the numbers their parents and grandparents did. Meanwhile, Canada’s voluntary organizations like Meals on Wheels and the Salvation Army are struggling to cope.

Recently, the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration funded a pilot project to test activities, aimed at attracting 50 and 60-somethings to the non-profit sector. The first report of the project, called Renaissance 50plus, was released earlier this year.

dan dubeau

We wanted to learn about the project findings, so AHB caught up with project manager Dan Dubeau at the Catholic Immigration Centre of Ottawa. Dubeau is coordinator of community programs.

Ruth Dempsey: So, what did you learn from the Renaissance 50plus project? Any surprises?

Dan Dubeau: In fact, we had several surprises. Starting out, we were under the impression that the decline in volunteers could be placed at the feet of boomers. But early on, we realized agencies might actually be the ones missing the boat.

A lot of what we learned was common sense once you understood the target audience. Many people in their 50s and 60s today are in better shape than their parents’ generation. They are healthier, more educated and, in general, better off financially. If volunteer organizations want to gain the services of this group, they must come up with a broad set of options to suit them. In fact, agencies know this, but it takes savvy management and resources to respond appropriately.

We had difficulty reaching older boomers, which also surprised us. Advertising, regardless of messaging, was not effective. In the end, it came down to "asking" people to get involved. This meant being in the right place at the right time and knowing people who knew people. My advisory group (mostly boomers) was indispensable here. They acted as conduits to the community – listing off names, identifying leaders and pinning down places and events.

And finally, we were surprised by the enormity of the hit agencies and organizations could take, if they fail to adapt. The changes required are significant. They will affect funding and demand greater involvement from executive directors.

RD: Older volunteers are anxious to avoid dead-end jobs . . .

DD: Correct. Many retiring 50-somethings are leaving management type jobs. They are used to organizing and leading special project teams. Some may want to build on their experience; others may be searching for something completely different. Whatever the case, they are looking for tangible results. And importantly, they want to feel good about their contributions.

So don’t expect them to "put out fires" or fix your organizational problems. They want to share their experience, but without the headaches. Also, just telling them, "We need your skills" won’t cut it. You must be prepared to show you can support their work and that it is directed to a cause they understand and care about.

RD: Some older adults avoid agencies and organizations altogether. Is that right?

DD: Indeed, it was interesting to learn how some older citizens choose to contribute to society on their own terms. After all, they don’t need a certificate of appreciation or even the social benefits. On the other hand, working with a credible and experienced organization can extend the reach of the individual and strengthen the fabric of society.

It’s also worth noting that many boomers are caring for older parents or grandchildren. So volunteering with an agency may interfere with family commitments or limit the time available for other activities.

book jacket - renaissance 50 plus

RD: Some suggest volunteers should be compensated. In New York City, one group pays retirees $10 an hour up to 15 hours weekly for work in the non-profit sector.

DD: This is a very touchy subject. However, I think we need to consider it. I still promote the volunteer role as an opportunity in itself. But in some cases, particularly with skilled "retirees", the environment has changed dramatically in the past decade. The baby boomers are entering retirement with an enormous amount of knowledge. They are caught in the "sandwich generation," and want to hold on to their semi-lavish lifestyle. For them, time is still money, and so unless you can offer them an equivalent "return on investment", they will not give you the time of day.

It comes down to the ability of an organization to recognize volunteers’ skills. But I don’t think an hourly rate is the way to go. In my case, for example, instead of searching the yellow pages for a consultant to carry out a task or small contract, I can nab a talented volunteer with a lifetime of experience. This way, I get an individual already familiar with the goals of our organization. In addition, the short-term contract serves as recognition and encourages ongoing volunteer participation.

In the U.S., some organizations are experimenting with governments to offer an educational grant for volunteers’ grandchildren. For example, if 80 hours a year was given, $400 could be added to an educational savings plan or something similar. I like this idea.

RD: Also, in the U.S., Civic Ventures has established the Purpose Prize for individuals 60 or older, who make significant contributions to the community. Five prizes of $100,000 and ten of $10, 000 are awarded annually. Winners use the award money to take their projects to the next level.

DD: As far as I can tell, this initiative is highlighting some great entrepreneurs and recognizing outstanding individuals, investing in projects they care deeply about. In other words, it’s not about the money. The prizes simply offer winners another potential pool of funding for their projects.

RD: One of the researchers at the U.K. International Longevity Centre has called for a social networking site to link retirees with companies and nonprofit organizations.

DD: Just imagine the convenience of being able to link up with the right employer or group from the comfort of your own home. I don’t expect sites like Facebook will do the trick. But perhaps, something less intrusive, focusing on an individual’s philanthropic profile? Boomers generally enjoy the social aspects of volunteering. Even more, they welcome opportunities to meet interesting and prominent people in the community.

I think businesses would also benefit from linking up to with well-managed non-profit organizations and encouraging their staffs to participate. As well, I imagine this as a great retirement transition strategy.

RD: Your group has developed some impressive resource materials. Are they available on the Web?

DD: We developed two bilingual booklets. The first one is Engaging 50+ Volunteers: A Resource Guide for Agencies. In this booklet, we document the project findings and provide an overview of the activities we used to recruit volunteers. This booklet is primarily for volunteer coordinators and program managers. The hard copy comes with a CD containing material some organizations may find useful. The content of the second booklet, Attention Boomers: Change the World . . . Again!, is aptly described by the subtitle, A Toolkit to Meaningful Volunteering. The booklet has sections on why people volunteer, where to look for volunteer opportunities and tips on finding the right fit. Booklets can be downloaded from Renaissance50plus [1] or the Catholic Immigration Centre [2] website.

book jacket - attention boomers

RD: September’s here, and some people may be looking for a new challenge. What three tips do you have for prospective volunteers?

DD: As a start, I suggest the following:

  • Ask yourself: what are your passions, your hobbies? Are you interested in one specific cause or more? Do you want to build on your present skills or learn new ones? Are you looking to be a leader? How do you hope to benefit? (Yes, it’s okay to ask and answer this question. In fact, it is very important for the volunteer coordinator to know this.)
  • Visit your local volunteer centre or chat with friends about volunteering. Consider inviting family members to volunteer with you. And don’t forget to consult our volunteer guide.
  • When you have decided on a few organizations in your chosen area, do your homework. Ask to be given a tour. Take a look at the annual report. What are the organization’s priorities? How do they mesh with your own? Shop around and test the waters. It may take some time to discover the fit that’s right for you. Finally, if you are the type of person who prefers to work from home, consider virtual volunteering. You can get started by visiting Volunteer Canada [3] or Idealist [4].

RD: And for agencies trying to nab new volunteers, what’s your advice?

DD: If you need someone to serve drinks at your event, that’s one thing. But if you are looking for someone to help plan or lead an event or an entire program, you must be flexible and ready to adapt. Also, note frequently the impact the volunteer is making.

Don’t waste their time. Clarify expectations with informal agreements and try to reduce paperwork. Also, give them as much breathing room as possible. Explore role reversals. You do the "grunt work" and they do the directing. Start by building an advisory group on this very question: how to nab new volunteers?

RD: Where next?

DD: Our agency will begin working on what we have learned from the project. For example, we are interested in the concept of "TAG Teams" (tactical, accountable, and gifted). This approach emphasizes qualities boomers value highly in volunteering: camaraderie, challenge, flexibility, meaningful work, social opportunities and lifelong learning. Initially, we would like to get the concept rolling on a small scale within our own organization and then expand it into the community and beyond.

We have submitted our report to the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. We hope to obtain funding to take things on to the next level, whatever that may be.

Volunteer Canada is planning initiatives countrywide. We have stimulated public dialogue and awareness is growing. Retiring boomers are re-envisioning the meaning and purpose of their later years. I think it’s up to organizations and non-profit groups to position themselves strategically and to be ready to support this cohort, as they prepare to "change the world" . . . again.

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[1] Renaissance50plus:

[2] Catholic Immigration Centre:

[3] Volunteer Canada:

[4] Idealist:

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