Volunteering, and turnover, high among Boomers

By Ret Boney

Baby Boomers today are volunteering at higher rates than their two predecessor generations did, but Boomer’s one-in-three attrition rate could be a problem, a new study says.

More than one in three Boomers ages 46 to 57 volunteer their time, compared with one in four members of the “Greatest Generation” and slightly less than that of the “Silent Generation,” says a new study by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

“The nonprofit sector is about to have an opportunity to have a volunteer explosion among older Americans,” says Robert Grimm, the organization’s director of research and policy development and chief author of the report. “If we engage them properly, we could really enhance the capacity of nonprofit organizations.”

The study compares the volunteer activities of Boomers with those of the Greatest Generation, or people born between 1910 and 1945, and the Silent Generation, or those born between 1931 and 1945.

While members of all three generations ages of 41 to 59 gave most of their time to religious organizations, Boomers’ second-favorite activities involve education or youth service, compared to the civic, political, business or international activities favored by the two older generations.

Overall, almost nine million Boomers are volunteers, and the study says that number is expected to jump to over 13 million by 2020.

The higher volunteer rate among Boomers likely is driven in part by the fact that Boomers ages 46 to 57 are more educated than people the same age from the preceding two generations, the study says.

At the same time, because they tended to wait longer to have children, Boomers are more likely to have school-aged kids at home than were their predecessors, further increasing volunteer rates.

However, more than one in three Boomers who volunteer in a given year do not volunteer the next, the study says, and not all vacated volunteer slots are replaced when they leave.

And given that volunteers are a critical element of the charitable-sector workforce, a turnover rate of 30 percent should be just as “undesirable” in the nonprofit sector as in the business world, the study says.

Commitment to volunteering among Boomers increases as the number of hours donated grows, with almost eight in 10 people giving 12 or more weeks a year continuing, compared to a retention rate of just over one in two for those giving less than two weeks a year.

Retention rates also appear tied to volunteer activities, with more than seven in 10 of those devoting their time to professional, managerial or teaching activities staying on, compared to only slightly more than half of those engaged in manual labor or delivery of food and goods.

“Today nonprofits will spend money for someone to write their strategic plan and use a volunteer to do more mundane activities,” says Grimm.  “The future could be one in which nonprofits have volunteers develop their strategic plan and pay someone to do office work.  That approach would be extremely cost-effective.”

To further improve retention, the study recommends charities use the same energy and care cultivating volunteers as they do with donors.

And citing a connection between giving and volunteering, the study says encouraging volunteering could translate into greater financial and in-kind contributions from volunteers.

“We hope this research will create new momentum for nonprofits to reengineer themselves so they can take full advantage of the volunteer wave that is coming because of the Boomers,” says Grimm.

The study is based on several years’ data from the volunteer supplements to the Current Population Survey, which is administered by the Census Bureau for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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