Recruiting across the ages

Motivations for volunteering differ from Boomers to X’ers to Millennials.

By Michael Easterbrook

Good marketers know not to use the same sales pitch on a Baby Boomer as they would on a Generation X’er.

When it comes to recruiting volunteers from different generations, the same goes for nonprofits.

“The more you speak to their motivations, the more effectively you will be able to engage them,” says Cynthia Scherer, vice president of volunteer centers and community-based strategies at the Points of Light Foundation, whose mission is to engage more people in volunteer work.

While making assumptions about people based on their age may sound impossible, many experts say people of similar age groups frequently share similar motivations.

Just as important, the motivations may change from one generation to the next.

Those born before World War II, sometimes referred to as “traditionalists,” may not mind spending eight hours answering phones for a fundraising campaign.

Having lived through so much turmoil, the thinking goes, they’re used to sacrifice.

“They are willing, in fact interested, in long-term commitments, and will often gladly take on repetitive tasks on your behalf,” says Judith Nichols, president of New Directions in Philanthropy, which specializes in helping organizations understand the implications of changing demographics.

But give that same task to a Boomer and you may never see him or her again.

Boomers typically will volunteer only if the work allows them to shine, or at least allows them to highlight their own particular skills, Scherer says.

She recalls a male Boomer who volunteered to work in a food pantry.

When the man, who was an IBM manager, arrived at the food pantry, he realized it wasn’t operating efficiently.

So instead of handing out food, he reorganized the pantry’s distribution system so it could feed more people with fewer resources.

“Boomers need to feel that their time is being well used,” Scherer says.

Perhaps the most difficult people to engage in volunteer work are Generation X’ers, a term that generally captures those born from 1965 to 1981, says Lynne Lancaster, co-founder of BridgeWorks and an expert on generational issues.  

Not only are Gen X’ers a tough group to sell to, Lancaster says, they’re also more likely to put their careers and family ahead of volunteer activities.

One group that has been successful in engaging X’ers is the Peace Corps.

In the 1970s, the Peace Corps attracted countless Boomers by promising them the opportunity to change the world.

“They couldn’t use that pitch with Generation X’ers because they are more skeptical than Baby Boomers,” Lancaster says.

So the Peace Corps changed its pitch for the new generation.

Instead of fixing the world, volunteers were told they would be able to make a more limited impact through the Peace Corps by helping a single village – or perhaps a single person.

The reason the new approach worked was because it sounded more realistic to a skeptical generation, Lancaster says.

If Gen X’ers are some of the most difficult volunteers to attract, one of the easiest groups to engage is one Lancaster calls the “millennial” generation – people born after 1982.

Experts say they’re more likely than other generations to volunteer because their schools require it.

Also, it looks good on college applications.

Even though professional consultants can help guide nonprofits that want to improve the way they recruit volunteers from different generations, experts say another way to get better is by simply remembering that not all volunteers are motivated by the same goals.

“The generations have a lot in common,” Lancaster says, “but there are also some important differences.”

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