Attracting younger volunteers to non-profit organizations

posted in: Consulting | 0

PGH_AshtabulaIn my consulting work, I often encounter highly committed volunteers ranging in age from their sixties to eighties. These are people that care deeply about their trail, their historic site, their community. They ask me how they can attract younger volunteers. I’m by no means an expert on volunteer recruitment, but thought I would share some thoughts on the topic:

First, a gut check. Why do you volunteer with your organization? What’s your relationship to the cause? Are you passionate? Are you tired? Are you excited? Are you bored? The reason I ask is that new volunteers (of any age) will pick up on the health of the organization, the contentment of other volunteers, and whether it’s dysfunctional or there’s just a general funk. Is the organization still relevant? People like to join winning teams, so what are you inviting newbies into?

I think it’s important to understand the motivations of volunteers of any age. When it comes to volunteering, people want to make a difference, to feel valued, and to make good use of their time. Do the meetings you host and the tasks you dole out fit this bill?

I know a guy who’s in his late sixties and often quips that he’s the youngest volunteer in his trail group, and he’s not kidding. This dynamo group includes guys in their eighties still running heavy operating equipment! One strategy worth trying is reaching out to people just younger than you. If your group is comprised of those in their sixties and upward, why not solicit the town’s 40-somethings and 50-somethings? Look no further than Meals on Wheels, where most volunteers are retirees and yet are 10 or 20 years younger than the clients.

About Millennials…there’s so much research on who they are and how they tick. Most of the best research that I’ve seen demonstrates that they’re just like the rest of us when it comes to wanting to make a difference. Maybe they’re even more committed. A article states that 63% of Millennials surveyed reported volunteering with a non-profit in 2011. Compare this to 26.5% of a general adult population volunteering, according to I recently asked uber volunteer Will Prince, who also manages the Trail Town Program, what motivates him to volunteer. This is the voice of just one Millennial, but I do want to share it. Scroll down for his thoughts on volunteering.

Just ask. One reason that people give (time and money) is that someone they know asked them to. Perhaps ask someone with leadership potential to consider a path to the organization’s presidency. First, get her on a committee, and then a board, and then into an officer’s position. And don’t let it take six years. Fast track her to a leadership position.

Consider creating “plug in” volunteer opportunities. A lot of busy young adults are wary of committing to a regular meeting or long-standing commitment, so let’s meet them where they are…a trail clean up here, a special event there. I know what you need most are people who can step into leadership roles. Allowing volunteers to get their feet wet is a starting point. It’s the beginning of a relationship that may deepen over time. (Just like with financial donors: you have to start someplace.)

Ask for help with specific projects. Some volunteers want to help with definable projects…helping to organize a special event, handling the organization’s social media, conducting a survey, etc. This goes back to valuing peoples’ time and also plays to their strengths and their need for flexibility.

Another way of lining up dedicated 20-something volunteers is via corps programs like AmeriCorps and the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps.

Make it fun! This applies to volunteers of any age bracket. Pizza and beer at meetings? Volunteer of the Year / Month / Week awards? A group bike ride after a meeting? Chocolate chip cookies? Why not? I think so long as you’re not taking up oodles of time and aren’t alienating any potential volunteers (imagine a scenario in which someone really prefers not to meet over beers), mix it up and enjoy your time together. Make spending time with Robert’s Rules of Order on a Thursday night a bit more appealing .

Q&A with one Millennial on Volunteering…

Q: What made you get involved as a volunteer?

A: One reason I got involved is because I knew things were happening and wanted my voice or interest heard. The Dr. Seuss quote often comes to mind: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” I want to make a difference in my community and in preservation. It’s all about passion. Plus it feels good back to give back.

Q: What makes volunteering work for you?

A: When I’m able to be semi flexible with commitment and when I’m with others who care about similar things.

Q: What deal-breakers would make you not want to volunteer?

A: If the mission or efforts went off track, if things didn’t get done or move forward (a.k.a. “getting stuck”), or if it got to be repetitive (I might still want to be involved, but limit my time).

Thanks to Will Prince of the Trail Town Program (and volunteer to Elizabeth Area Development Corporation and Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh) for entertaining my questions around volunteering!

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