Thursday, March 15, 2007

Boomers are volunteering more -- for now

A large U.S. federal study says that as the Baby Boomers moved into middle age they sharply ramped up their rates of volunteering, but that they are also less willing to consider stereotypical envelope-stuffing as worth their time. Since there are more and more opportunities today to do more than that, it follows that non-profits which still think in the older terms will increasingly fall behind in volunteer recruitment.

The Corporation for National and Community Service, which was created in 1993 as the parent agency of AmeriCorps, used data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau to compare volunteerism rates in the 1970s, 1980s, and 2000s. They concluded that "Boomers in their late 40s to mid-50s are volunteering at higher rates than members of the Greatest Generation and Silent Generation did at the same age. Boomers were volunteering at lower rates than their predecessors while in their 30s, but that trend has reversed."

The study found that volunteers today are most interested in making active, challenging contributions with their time, in particular "professional activities – such as managing people or projects", "music or some other type of performance" and "tutoring, mentoring and coaching". The researchers concluded that volunteers who are asked to do general simple labor for non-profits are far less likely nowadays to return for more.

That research fits with a couple of trends in the non-profit sector. One of them is the success in certain niches of programs where a relatively complex mission is carried out entirely by volunteers. I've participated in one spectacular example which was in large part invented here in the Chicago area: intensive ecological restoration carried out by self-governing volunteer groups who follow the scientific advice of trained ecologists. More and more civic efforts in other fields, such as disaster relief and public-schools improvement, are accomplishing things via similar structures.

A related concept is that of non-profits whose mission is to formalize professional volunteerism and thereby enable more of it. Such a group takes responsibility for recruiting professionals who want to do some volunteering with their particular professional expertise (marketing, accounting, legal advice, information technology, whatever) and matching them up with non-profits which really need the specific help and which are equipped to make good use of it. This gets at the problem that we've all seen of well-meaning professionals who end up feeling like their time and energy was wasted or that the non-profit they volunteered at was really just trying to cultivate them as a donor (both feelings often being, alas, accurate).

One type of this sort of "volunteerism broker" group is service groups organized by subject, such as Lawyers for the Creative Arts and their analogues in numerous other cities. A new organization which is attempting to take the concept to scale across professional disciplines is Taproot Foundation (which makes "service grants" of volunteer time, not money grants), founded by the son of the original designer of the Peace Corps.

If that federal research is right then more such organizing efforts could yield major long-term benefits for the U.S. non-profit sector and for that matter for American society in general, and could like the formal civic sector itself become an American invention which spreads around the world.