Independent Sector is at it again.
The Washington nonprofit, whose mission it is to encourage giving, volunteering and better management of nonprofits, has published a summary of research findings about senior volunteerism in a useful booklet entitled "Senior Citizens As Volunteers."
The booklet relies on data from its 1992 edition of Giving and Volunteering in the United States, as well as other research on volunteering. With the well-documented growth of this demographic group, nonprofit leaders should be doing everything possible to involve seniors in their programs.
What emerges in the booklet is more than merely a statistical portrait of seniors and their volunteer practices. The 25-page booklet is by no means an exhaustive manual on managing a senior citizen volunteer program, but the authors nevertheless do a good job of translating facts and figures into basic conceptual recommendations.
There are some surprises in store, even for informed readers. For example, I had always assumed that volunteer activity increases after retirement. Not so, report the study authors. In fact, seniors that work part-time are more likely to volunteer than fully retired persons.
Commonly touted truisms about senior volunteers prove to be true, according to the report. Most senior volunteers have been volunteering steadily throughout their lives in a wide range of activities, a strong case for nonprofits developing wide-ranging volunteer programs. Another truism reinforced by the study is that the most effective means of recruiting senior volunteers is through direct personal contact, usually by a current volunteer known to the prospect.
A volunteerism concept that I sometimes have a difficult time getting across to program administrators is that getting firm commitments from volunteers reduces recruitment and retention problems down the road, a fact borne out by the Independent Sector report. However, once seniors are on the job, they tend to stay in place far longer than younger volunteers.
One very interesting finding, which should rise to the top of any organization's senior volunteer marketing agenda, is that seniors not volunteer to "fill their time." Rather, like their younger counterparts, they volunteer to help others, to act upon their feelings of compassion. And to make a difference in causes of personal importance.
What then, should an organization do to increase its recruitment and retention of seniors? The booklet authors suggest that recruitment is more effective when assignments are challenging. Seniors need to feel that their life experiences and skills are well-used.
While personal contacts are the most effective recruitment tools, the authors also point out that they tend to limit the volunteer pool to people who are similar to those already involved with the agency. To that end, organizations need to have a broader marketing approach, using the media, speakers bureaus and other recruitment devices.
Also, organizations that require specific time commitments and tasks are more likely to acquire and keep senior volunteers. But organizations need to be careful about matching a senior to appropriate tasks, or they will leave. To that end, the authors suggest using a placement interview, in which the assignment is described in detail, opportunities and problems of the assignment are honestly discussed, the aspirations of the volunteer are addressed, there is a sincere attempt to match the assignment to the volunteer's capabilities, and there is a clear agreement about the time commitment.
Again, this booklet is by no means a comprehensive discussion of the issue of senior volunteerism, nor a how-to manual for those starting or embellishing a recruitment program. However, it is a well-done synopsis of current research for practitioners and would make good reading for both staff and board members of organizations which use senior volunteers.
"Senior Citizens as Volunteers" was supported through a grant from Metropolitan Life Foundation. Single copies of the booklet are available for $4.00 ($2.80 for members) by calling (301) 490-3229.
Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202; (410) 783-5100