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So, we all know there is a paradigm shift happening in volunteer management. As the WWII generation sadly leaves us, we are looking to the baby boomer generation and on to fill their prodigious shoes. When I first started working with volunteers, the greatest generation was busily humming along, doing every and anything necessary to fill needs. Nothing was beneath them and honestly, I didn’t manage any of them, I basically stood back in awe and occasionally ran for some refreshments. They taught me humility for it was in their essence to be humble, hardworking, non-complaining, authority respecting and generous.

As I watch their faces grow more lined, their limbs more trembling, their gait unsteady, I can only stand by helplessly, offering a hand to their elbow as they decline. Their eyes, though, clear as an autumn sky, still hold the hardships they endured as they endure one more.
As these volunteers age and retire, we, volunteer managers know that the next generation of volunteers will be different, will be their own people with a new skill set needed to recruit, engage and cultivate them. So, as I read the research and advice on how to find and keep great baby boomer volunteers, I make note of not only the advice that’s out there, but the experiences I’m having as well. I’m seeing that boomers are different; they are not as inclined to want repetitious jobs or confining schedules. They want more perceived meaning in their lives and they balk at boring assignments and rigid requirements. A lot of them look at volunteering through a spiritual or universal prism and speak freely about their journey to find meaning. There are those who were very active in the 60’s revolutions and after working corporate jobs for years, want to return to their activism roots.
But back to the WWII generation. I remember Dora, a volunteer who came in to shred papers. Her husband was a big band trumpet player and she accompanied him on USO tours during the war. She would sit for hours in front of the shredder, pulling staples and paper clips, shredding no more than three pages at a time. Dora was possessive of the shredder and when another greatest generation gentleman, Bob came to shred papers, she sniped about how he didn’t do it right. Bob, a man who was orphaned during the Great Depression, was a bombardier who flew missions over Germany. Those two volunteers knew that we needed the sensitive material shredded and they dutifully spent their time helping us see that job done right. For them, there was no answering of phones, no fund-raising, no strategic planning, nothing except paper shredding with no complaints.
Both Dora and Bob died some time ago. I tried to replace them and could do it piecemeal for a while by asking office volunteers if they would “just do it for an hour” while they were at work. An easy job became harder and harder to fill as Bob’s and Dora’s generation started to slip away.
As we grew used to the dwindling of the generation that included widows who never worked and needed more training and help with office duties and war heroes who never spoke about their experiences, we embraced the boomers who work hard, have boundless skills and opinions and challenge us to dig deep for a more involved volunteerism.

So, what’s the challenge? It lies in being able to integrate the paradigm shift into the fabric of our organizations. Newer organizations or those run by young people already have a deep understanding of millennial and generation X and boomers. It’s the organizations that are older, run by long-term administration who looks at volunteer services as “it’s always been thus.” Convincing them that no one wants to shred paper anymore after it’s been shredded for years by willing volunteers is tricky.
I loaned a volunteer out to another department who needed one time help putting together last-minute binders for a presentation. Jill, a fabulous boomer who normally works on statistics and research agreed to lend a hand for a day. She came back and pleaded, “don’t ever ask me to do that again because I will quit first. They had me copy a 100 page binder thirty times. Do you know how many people came up to me and complained that they couldn’t get copies made while I was there? And the machine ran out of toner, then it jammed, I think it probably overheated too. I had to just stand there and watch as the copier ran. It was excruciating!”
Thankfully, Jill happily returned to her more meaningful tasks and we laugh about her foray into “copier purgatory.”

As we have adjusted our thinking regarding volunteers and their changing involvement, our organizations need to rethink their view of volunteers as well.
Old thinking: Volunteers will do any job regardless of how tedious.
New thinking: Volunteers need meaningful experiences.
Old thinking: Jobs that have always been done by volunteers will happily continue to be done by volunteers.
New thinking: Maybe we should invest in a paper shredding service and use volunteers for more important jobs.
Old thinking: Volunteers are all the same, they come to be helpful, we tell them how to be helpful, they do the job and go home happy.
New thinking: Volunteers have so much wisdom, experience and passion to offer, let’s find ways to tap into that.

Bringing research and evidence that volunteering is changing and that we must adapt is no small mission. Telling management that old thinking is well, old thinking and that it is nearly impossible to find volunteers to do menial tasks without sounding negative takes finesse. Being proactive and showing what the new volunteer paradigm can do goes a long way to ease the pain of losing shredding volunteers.
Let’s see, volunteers who shred papers vs. volunteers who design websites or consult or have management experience? Hopefully, organizations choose a new wave of professional skill sets over mundane tasks.

Old thinking: All a volunteer coordinator has to do is ask and a volunteer will magically appear to shred.
New thinking: It takes multiple complex skills on the part of our volunteer coordinator to engage the new volunteer. Let’s listen to him or her about volunteerism and accept that he or she has done the research and has knowledge on the subject.
Added bonus or really new thinking: Let’s give him/her some much-needed recognition next Wednesday during International Volunteer Managers Day.