Inspiring a new wave of volunteering

From baby boomers to millennials, how can businesses, governments and organisations tap into an undervalued pool of potential volunteers? By Georgina Lavers

Hadeel Abu Soufeh has been a paraplegic since a car accident when she was 11 years old, and had quickly adapted to her condition. But when she arrived at university in Jordan, she found that it was not set up for students like her. Hearing-impaired students had to rely on scrawled notes from friends in lectures, and as there were no wheelchair-accessible toilets, those in chairs would fast a day in advance, just to participate in class.

Hadeel knew that changes had to be made. So, she gathered signatures online and petitioned the university, eventually securing the installation of 20 toilets for people with special needs, and two sign-language interpreters for students with hearing impairments.

After this success, she went on to co-launch the Kumisteer initiative that seeks to encourage people with disabilities to be volunteers. “I wanted to prove to the whole world that volunteering is for everyone and not exclusive to one group,” she said.

Hadeel’s initiative brought together a new, younger volunteer demographic in the region. And hers is just one of many institutions seeking to tap into new demographics to enact change.

“There is a perception that volunteering is something for older people, and much of infrastructure and behaviour of key organisations reflects this,” says Dominic Cotton, Director of Communications and Public Affairs for UK volunteering charity Step Up To Serve. “However, there is growing evidence to show that more young people are ready to get involved.”

Promoting the variety of opportunities and range of ways that younger people can engage in social action is key

Dominic Cotton, Director of Communications and Public Affairs for Step Up To Serve

Cotton cites a July 2016 Community Life survey, which showed that for the first time in five years, no other age group had higher rates of volunteering than those aged 16 to 25 years.

One demographic already closely associated with volunteer work is the baby boomers. Now, a new wave of pensioners in better health and with an extended life expectancy are proving that they can inspire change as dynamically as millennials.

“We’re seeing a strong movement of baby boomers, who are at a stage in life when they’re moving from success to significance,” says David Eisner, CEO of US non-profit Repair the World.

“As they have more time, they are finding new ways to take the skills from their careers and put them to social good. And that is a powerful resource.”

In an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Eisner uses Jim as an example of how important older volunteers can be to nonprofits. Jim has 41 years of financial experience – invaluable to charities such as the March of Dimes Foundation, which works to improve mother and child health. He currently volunteers at the foundation doing strategic planning, marketing, information technology, training and research. His age? 77.

“Volunteer leaders are key to the financial success of the nonprofit sector, so leaders in companies who have roles of CEO, CNO or CFO are needed by nonprofits to help with business and strategic planning, and building relationships,” says Meredith Repik, Director of Strategic Volunteer Partnerships for the March of Dimes.

Yet cracks are showing in volunteer retention and engagement worldwide. In 2006, more than one-third of those who volunteered for one year at a non-profit did not donate their time the following year – an estimated US$38bn in lost labour. More recent statistics show that volunteering rates in the US have reached their lowest point in nearly 15 years. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 24.9 per cent or 62.6 million Americans volunteered in 2015, and there was also a sharp drop-off in volunteering among college graduates, who traditionally have the highest rates of volunteering.

“That number had been stable a long time and all of a sudden the bottom dropped out,” Nathan Dietz, a Senior Research Associate at the Centre on Nonprofits and Philanthropy, said at the time.

So how can charities re-engage the departed, retain the current and recruit the new? Eisner suggests that many volunteers may not return because of migration and globalisation, which has seen people moving around more than ever before. But a common reason given by former volunteers is a sense that their contribution is either not effective, or is undervalued, a problem for which Eisner suggests emphasising meaningfulness as a solution.

“Volunteers who provide lunches, for example, don’t only need to complete that task, but need to understand why those lunches are needed and what that means for the lives of the people that they’re impacting.”

“Young people are increasingly shown to be keen to support people around them and have a ‘civic’ outlook,” adds Cotton. However, he believes traditional volunteering isn’t always what they are looking for. “Promoting the variety of opportunities and range of ways that younger people can engage in social action is key.”

How can charities re-engage the departed, retain the current and recruit the new?

Cotton also pinpoints evidence to show that young people develop key employability skills through getting involved in social action, including resilience, empathy, problem-solving and teamwork. “Employers and key membership organisations like the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) confirm that young people who have social action experience make better employees,” he asserts. “We want more employers to act on this and actively reference social action as they recruit.”

A global solution to falling engagement could be technology, which can reach across religion, nationality or any other limiting factor as well as marshalling information, to connect potential volunteers with the opportunities of their choice.

“Having a portal for volunteers to find non-profit opportunities in their communities would be a great asset,” says Repik.

There are already some programmes that address this need, including Neighbourly, which allows charities or individuals to list a project and receive food donations, attract volunteers or get financial support. The Do-It Trust, a UK non-profit launched in 2011, has modernised volunteering with –a national database that makes it easy to find volunteer opportunities.

“There is huge scope for digital platforms to support volunteering but more investment is needed,” says Cotton. “There needs to be a small number of ‘go-to’ platforms that have comprehensive information, and these need to be marketed far more effectively than is currently the case.”

In Rwanda, the government distributes cell phones to volunteer community healthcare workers in rural areas, used to monitor the progress of pregnant women, and to call for urgent assistance when necessary.

The scheme has contributed significantly to reducing maternal deaths: proof, if it were needed, that harnessing technology can not just inspire a new wave of volunteering – it can save lives.