HandsOn Greater Phoenix (HGP) has relied heavily on the engagement of students and working adults throughout its 23-year history. When it launched an academic intervention program shortly after its inception, it stuck with its target demographic.
The problem was, according to HGP CEO Rhonda Oliver, it wasn’t working. “We had trouble with meaningful engagement,” Oliver said. “We were re-recruiting people every year.”
The program seldom topped 20 volunteers and the retention rate was about 30 percent for roughly a decade. HGP’s leadership took a cue from an organization in Washington, D.C., and began targeting Baby Boomers and retirees for the program. Three volunteered the first year, but 10 years later the program, Your Experience Counts, has about 125 volunteers and the retention rate is north of 80 percent.
“This demographic has more time and flexibility, can spend more time during the school day with students,” Oliver said. “They can bring really rich life experiences from personal and professional vantage points.”
Some 62.6 million Americans contributed 7.7 billion hours of community service in 2013, according to data compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Individuals, ages 65 and older, were just 16.9 percent of the volunteers, but accumulated 24.4 percent of the volunteer hours.
Combined with Baby Boomers, the elder portion of the population accounted for 45.2 percent of the volunteers and 54.8 percent of the volunteer hours. It is due, in large part, to the fact that the median annual hours of volunteering for older adults and Baby Boomers was 92 and 53, respectively, as compared to 44 and 36, respectively, for Generation X and Millennials.
Time is important given the training required for the program and the two hours per week that HGP requires volunteers to commit to throughout the school year. Some volunteers provide up to 20 hours per week aiding teachers instructing grades three through six in five Phoenix-area school districts, with the average being five hours per week, according to Oliver. Student performance is better, with about 85 percent of students improving on measurables, such as test scores. Student engagement, based on teacher observations, has increased for more than 95 percent of students, Oliver said.
Your Experience Counts is HGP’s most older adults-focused program. The talents of retirees in fields such as human resources and public relations have also been leveraged. Oliver said that other organizations could find success similar to that of HGP’s by looking to connect to older volunteers. “I would encourage agencies to think about their need and who is out there in the population that could fill that need.”
Alison Doerfler, executive director of HandsOn Network, a branch of Points Of Light headquartered in Atlanta, Ga., opined that the greatest impact older volunteers could have on the sector is the opportunity for high retention rates. Doerfler described the aging Baby Boomer generation as particularly cause minded and a great laboratory experiment for models that could work several decades down the line for Millennials.
HandsOn collects data, Doerfler said, and has observed an increase in older-adult engagement among its affiliates. The retiring generation has set itself apart from other current and past generations in its ability to address all three giving criteria – time, talent and treasure. “I think this generation hits all three buckets for the first time,” Doerfler said. “People are giving money, skills-based volunteering and how they can really utilize what they have done in their careers.”
New seniors are also living longer and aging better, Doerfler said, meaning that they often see a life and opportunities to stay engaged well after retirement. “I think they know that if you have an AARP card, you have more than just discounts. There’s more there,” said Doerfler.
New York Cares (NYC), like HGP, is heavily dependent on young adults, according to Steve Streicher, director of communications and marketing. Only about 6,500 of NYC’s 62,000 volunteers are older adults or Baby Boomers, Streicher said. The number has increased by more than 30 percent during the past five years. More significantly, older volunteers are able to contribute well more than NYC’s average. The average NYC volunteer contributes to 6.5 projects per year, according to Streicher, with older volunteers averaging just shy of 11 projects per year.
NYC staff has been tracking what Streicher described as “the encore movement,” Baby Boomers and older adults transitioning out of full-time employment, for several years. They noted the steadiness the population offers in terms of volunteerism. Streicher said that it is hard to predict when and to what extent a critical mass will hit among older volunteers, but added that NYC has endeavored to capitalize with measures such as making its volunteer website more user friendly. NYC might also adjust strategies to tap into a growing older volunteer market, Streicher said. “It’s a population that we want to make sure feels engaged with us.”
The portion of American volunteer hours contributed by Baby Boomers and older adults has decreased since its 57 percent mark in 2010, according to data provided by Samantha Jo Warfield, press secretary for CNCS. However, the portion contributed by older adults has steadily increased from 20.6 percent in 2010 to 21.5 percent in 2011 to 23 percent in 2012.
Warfield said that the two generations of elder adults have not broken the traditional cycle of volunteering, which is that individuals tend to become more engaged as they grow older, put roots down, have a family and then find more time on their hands with empty nests and retirement. The generations, particularly Baby Boomers, are unique in their quantity and their sophistication in terms of education and professional background, Warfield said. As such, older volunteers might be less engaged in menial tasks such as stuffing envelopes and look for more challenging volunteer opportunities.
“They may be more interested in applying things they have done in their careers in new ways,” Warfield said. “Nonprofits are trying to leverage those skills.”
Bookkeeping, media relations and event planning are among the skill sets older adults might bring to a cash-strapped organization, Warfield said, adding that potential volunteers are engaged and excited to contribute. “Every volunteer has something to offer,” Warfield said. “Smart and effective nonprofits are figuring out how to use that to their advantage.”
Reeling them in
SCORE, a Herndon, Va.-based organization that provides education and mentorship to small business owners, recruited 3,000 volunteers during 2014, according to CEO W. Kenneth Yancey, Jr., a 40-percent increase compared to 2013. Some 70 percent of the new volunteers were retirees, he said.
There is nothing that Yancey has seen that indicates that people are retiring more rapidly, but they are retiring differently, he said. “They’re much more engaged and they get engaged more quickly,” Yancey said. SCORE has also seen an older volunteer base, ages 55 to 65, that has been interested in providing mentorship before eventually moving on to pursue their own small business ventures. “I think our volunteers are going to engage in a lot of different things that interest them, not just one.”
Volunteers of today are especially interested in opportunities that provide them with a sense of fulfillment and where they feel as though their talents and abilities are being utilized, Yancey said. Jim Emerman, executive vice president of Encore.org in San Francisco, Calif., concurred, adding that Baby Boomers, due to their high level of education and health as compared to previous retiring generations, expect more out of retirement and volunteer opportunities. “They have an expectation of themselves and what they can and should do,” Emerman said.
There are two things to keep in mind concerning this generation of volunteers, Emerman said. For one, they want to see the skills they have accumulated in life used to the highest potential. Two, organizations are creating opportunities that aren’t in the traditional direct-service mold to accommodate this desire, a trend Encore is currently compiling a study on. New-wave volunteer opportunities include the launching of programming and cultivation of service partnerships, Emerman said.
Finding opportunities for a particularly highly educated and skilled volunteer force will become increasingly important for organizations as they look to improve services, Emerman predicted. “Really think about how you use talent in your organization,” Emerman advised. “Think about volunteers as an overall strategy of talent, not just an addendum. Look at strategic ways of leveraging volunteers’ skill sets to advance organizations.” NPT