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Tapping Into Strengths of Our Senior Volunteers

This article originally appeared on www.mavanetwork.org and is featured here in partnership with the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement.

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By Joshua Braverman

Volunteers are critical to mission achievement for most non-profit organizations, and many organizations find that volunteers aged 65+ are an important part of their volunteer workforce.

The reliance on volunteers 65+ is becoming more pronounced in some nonprofit subsectors, as well as in rural areas with older populations. Thus, it's important to understand this growing demographic. 

In order to better understand the experiences of Volunteer Engagement Professionals and how they engage with older volunteers, the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA) conducted a research study in Summer, 2020.

This article will dig into MAVA's research-backed tips and tools about how senior volunteers can best be recruited, engaged, and retained as volunteers.

Background

The focus of Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA)'s study was on the opportunities, successes, and challenges of volunteers 65+.

This research included a survey of nonprofit professionals, along with interviewing and consulting with several nonprofit professionals who successfully work with older volunteers. The full report is available here

Study Methodology

189 individuals responded to MAVA’s survey.

The survey was developed to provide an assessment of the experiences, challenges, and opportunities of engaging with older volunteers.

As we wanted to collect both quantitative and qualitative responses, the survey was approximately comparable across these item types.

This survey was planned with structured interviews and focus groups of the relevant stakeholders (mostly VEPS) across the Midwestern United States. These qualitative components of the research (i.e. interviews and focus groups) also helped to provide rich context for creation of the framework presented.

Results 

The results of the analysis of the quantitative data indicates that engagement of this group of volunteers can be examined through two major lenses:

1) Recruitment and Retention 

61.5% of the survey respondents stated that volunteers over the age of 65 are easier to recruit relative to volunteers under the age of 65. 

Furthermore, 23% of respondents reported recruiting has the same level of challenge across age groups and 15 % reported that  it is easier to recruit volunteers under the age of 65, relative to volunteers over the age of 65. 

When asked to select which of the provided recruitment strategies were successful with older volunteers, participants indicated the most successful strategies were existing volunteers recruiting from their social network (82.70%), web postings (38.6%), newspaper articles (32.3%), and newsletter articles (29.6%). 

Only 27.27% of respondents reported having any specific recruiting procedures for older volunteers. When asked to indicate recruitment challenges,  responses were as follows: volunteers are less interested in volunteering during COVID-19 (67.2%); volunteers leave town for part of the year (59.8 %); lack of access to technology (55 %), and health limitations (50.3%). 

Notably, 76% of respondents reported that volunteers over the age of 65 are easier to retain than those under the age of 65. Furthermore, about 24% of respondents reported retention being easier or about the same level of difficulty for volunteers under the age of 65. 

2) Opportunities and Challenges.

While some may focus excessively on potential challenges with older volunteers, the unique opportunities of older volunteers were highlighted in the MAVA study.  

The table below shows that respondents noted many advantages of engaging volunteers over age 65. 

Screenshot 2024-05-05 at 3.18.28 PM

Table 2 shows that respondents also indicated some challenges  related to volunteers 65+. 

Screenshot 2024-05-05 at 3.19.24 PMMAVA's research  demonstrates that  while we may reach some broad generalizations about volunteers 65+,  it is crucial to approach each and every volunteer as an individual regardless of age (or any other demographic factor).

Based on the empirical and qualitative data collected, MAVA found many promising practices  for engagement with older volunteers that may also apply to volunteers of any age or skill/ability level.

In the following sections, we cover some promising practices for effective engagement of older volunteers. These focus on effective recruitment, management, and working with opportunities and challenges of older volunteers.

Please see MAVA’s full report, Tapping into the Strengths of Older Volunteers, available here.

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Steps to Effective Engagement of Older Volunteers

The framework presented here is centered around the volunteer lifecycle which consists of the acquisition of new volunteers, the management of volunteers day to day, and the retention of volunteers to reduce the need to continuously be recruiting new volunteers.

Each aspect is equally important, and strong volunteer engagement focuses on improving each aspect. 

The three broad steps within the framework for effective engagement of older volunteers are:

  1. Design and utilize recruitment practices that are considerate of older volunteers.
  2. Effectively manage the environment in which volunteers work.
  3. Utilize the opportunities and manage the challenges that older volunteers offer. 

Recruitment Practices 

The first step in our three-step framework for effective engagement with older volunteers is to develop strong recruiting practices.

Developing strong recruitment practices involves creating the right opportunities for potential volunteers, communicating effectively, and finding the best fit for new and existing volunteers.

Below you will find more detailed information on how an organization can build strong recruitment practices:

Creating attractive opportunities for older volunteers

Designing volunteer roles should be done before the recruitment process begins, and before volunteers are onboarded. Organizations should develop a wide range of volunteer roles; this will make your organization more attractive to potential volunteers who have different skill sets and desires for volunteer work.

Additionally, organizations should consider training volunteers in multiple different roles. By doing this, organizations can have added scheduling flexibility and it can help avoid volunteer burnout.

When designing volunteer roles for older adults, it is also important to recognize and understand reasons why they may wish to volunteer, and also reasons that may be holding them back from volunteering.

Organizations should design roles that reinforce the reasons they want to volunteer, and address or mitigate any concerns they may have that may turn them off from volunteering. 

Reasons why older adults may want to volunteer:
  • To meet new people
  • Satisfaction of giving back to their community
  • To cope with feelings of inactivity or isolation
  • To pass on knowledge or experience they have gained
Reasons why older adults may not want to volunteer:
  • Fear of demeaning assignments
  • They do not want to be supervised by someone younger than themselves.
  • Feeling burnt out after a lifetime of work
  • They are too busy with family or other obligations

Effective communication methods for current and prospective volunteers 

Once volunteer roles have been designed, it is important for organizations to communicate with the community about potential volunteer opportunities, and to develop strong volunteer communication practices with existing volunteers which will help to retain them.

Organizations should have recruitment methods that are specifically designed to target older volunteers if they wish to further their engagement with this demographic.

Likewise, organizations should have a variety of ways to communicate with existing volunteers, as not all volunteers will prefer the same method of communication. Some volunteers may prefer to receive phone calls, some may prefer emails, and others may prefer other modes of communication. 

Common methods of communication for recruitment purposes include:
  • Face to face
  • Newspapers and community newsletters
  • Radio
  • Mail
  • Posters in restaurants or places of worship (with permission)
  • And more
Communication methods for current volunteers include:
  • Face to face
  • Phone call or text messages
  • Video conferencing
  • Mail
  • Email 
  • Social media
  • Along with context and location specific solutions

Successful recruitment methods

As discussed above, communication is a key part of recruitment.

The most effective method of recruitment is through face-to-face communication. Through our survey and discussions with focus groups, it is apparent that the most commonly used, and most effective, face to face recruitment method is facilitated by event hosting.

These events can be hosted in a variety of ways. The two most popular ways are community events and speaker events. Community events are more casual events such as cookouts, trivia nights, or film screenings. This can be a great way to engage with the community, draw in potential volunteers, and discuss volunteer opportunities with them.

Speaker events are events where organizations host a speaker that will present on the organization, including its mission and roles available.

A key tip for both types of events is to involve your existing volunteers and allow them to invite their friends and family. 82.7% of our survey respondents indicated that having current volunteers recruiting their friends is a highly successful recruitment method. 

Finding the correct fit for volunteers & mutual designation of Volunteer roles 

Once a volunteer has expressed interest in joining an organization, it is important for volunteer leaders to discuss the best volunteer role for them. Determining the best fit for a volunteer requires a balance between volunteer needs and organizational needs.

Volunteer leaders should have a one-on-one conversation with every new volunteer to assess where they best fit into their organization.  These one-on-one conversations should begin with getting to know the volunteer, their interests and their skillset.

Based on each volunteer’s background and interests, this conversation should also include the presentation of a few different roles that they may wish to pursue. Other important topics include a conversation  around the volunteer’s ability to perform possible tasks (time, skills, physical conditions).

In particular, the optimal fit can only be arranged in light of what the volunteer can and cannot commit to and understanding how the volunteer thinks they could best serve the mission of the organization.

Effective Management 

Once roles have been designed and recruitment has taken place, it is important to manage volunteers effectively.

Effective volunteer management allows them to succeed and grow both personally and professionally. Additionally, effective management of both volunteer efforts and the working environment more broadly is crucial to the retention of highly skilled volunteers.

This section provides some tips for effective management of your volunteer workforce:

Fostering an inclusive environment for older adult volunteers

It is important to be inclusive of everyone within any organization across all demographic groups and in turn, to be respectful of cultural differences. After all, diversity is a strength to any organization. With diversity comes differences in thought and problem-solving techniques that can reduce “groupthink” and promote creative problem solving to further the mission of your organization.

Volunteers age 65+ can be overlooked and can be harmed by implicit biases or stereotypes. This is very apparent during the Pandemic where volunteers age 65+ are automatically dismissed from service in many organizations. An organization should provide training to staff  and volunteers to help them learn that not all people within a specific age range are identical in their abilities, vulnerabilities, skills, understanding of concepts, or cultural background. 

A final piece to fostering an inclusive environment, specifically pertaining to the management of older volunteers, is to promote and allow for intergenerational collaboration. Intergenerational collaboration means allowing for volunteers of all ages to mingle and collaborate together. This will result in an effective learning environment for all volunteers. Organizations should not separate volunteer roles according to any specific demographics (e.g. age).

Collecting and implementing feedback 

Collecting and implementing feedback from volunteers can help improve the opportunities that an organization offers its volunteers, and help the organization more effectively reach its goals. Many volunteers are frontline workers who have a clear view of client interactions. For this reason, volunteers are a great source of ideas for how to improve an organization.

Older volunteers, especially, typically have many years of experience and industry knowledge. Organizations should leverage this knowledge and allow these volunteers the opportunity to express their ideas.

Below are some ways organizations can utilize the full potential of their volunteers by allowing them to contribute to the organization's mission:

  • Put volunteers in a position to identify needs and solutions that further the goal of the organization.

  • Offer project leadership opportunities to volunteers and be open to project ideas that volunteers propose.

  • Create systems to monitor changes in volunteer expectations and adapt to the changing needs of volunteers.

Normalizing change in volunteer roles  

At times, some existing volunteers may experience life events that stand in the way of volunteering in the same capacity or role. In order to improve retention, and not have to recruit and train new volunteers, it is a good idea to have flexibility within an organization. Allowing volunteers to switch roles, or modify their existing role, when they can no longer serve in their current capacity can help develop this flexibility.

For any organization, change should be a proactive process rather than a reactive one. To be proactive, an organization should let volunteers know that switching roles is an option, before they experience a life event that could cause a need for a switch. Organizations should have scheduled conversations with volunteers to see if they would like to continue in their current role, or if they would like to switch.

Opportunities and Challenges for Older Volunteers

Not all older adults are the same; however, among older volunteers there are situations that present opportunities and challenges for organizations managing older volunteers.

According to our survey respondents and participants in our focus groups; the three most common challenges that organizations face when managing aging volunteers are related to cognitive and physical challenges, knowledge or comfort gaps, and seasonality in desired volunteer work.

This section provides some methodologies that organizations can use to help overcome these challenges:

Cognitive & Physical Challenges

If an organization has volunteers that are over the age of 65 and plan to volunteer for many more years to come, it is possible that some of the volunteers will experience physical or cognitive changes during their time with the organization.

For organizations to address this challenge effectively, we recommend the following framework:

  1. Have conversations with your volunteers about their role
    This is part of being proactive. Ask your volunteers if they are comfortable in their current capacity or if they would like to switch roles. Ask them if there is anything the organization can do to better help them perform the tasks related to their role.
  2. Modify the role to accommodate them, or switch them to a new role
    Determine whether a role modification would still allow the organization to meet its objectives. The volunteer should be engaged in the modification of their role and be allowed to identify how they can best serve the organization. 
  3. Monitor and follow up
    Have a conversation similar to the one from step 1 to find out if there is any additional training they need for their new role.

Addressing Technological Knowledge & Comfort Gaps  

All volunteers have different levels of experience using technology.

In some cases, volunteers may not have the required knowledge to use the technology resources effectively; and in other cases, volunteers may simply prefer to use traditional or alternative methods instead of using technology.

There are different ways to address these technology challenges, so it is important to be able to recognize the difference between lacking technological skills and preferring alternative methods.

In this section we will provide some tips for each:

Ways to address technological knowledge gaps:
  • Monthly trainings:
    • Hold monthly training sessions to discuss how to use certain technologies that are core to operations.
  • Training videos:
    • Have a digital library of pre-recorded videos on many different topics related to the use of technology, that volunteers can access whenever they are struggling with something.
  • Shadowing:
    • Allow volunteers to shadow more experienced volunteers so they can observe how specific pieces of technology or equipment are used.
  • Survey & 1:1 consultation
    • Send out a survey to volunteers asking if they need help learning how to use any specific piece of technology. After obtaining the survey results, sit down with those that need help and teach them. If there is a large number of respondents that require help with the same thing, hold a group training.
Ways to address technological comfort gaps:
  • Education on how new technologies can make the work easier.
  • Make the switch and the learning experience fun.
  • Slow transition periods.

Seasonality 

Some volunteers may not wish to volunteer year-round and would prefer to take a particular season or seasons off. Seasonal volunteer work is very common among students who sometimes prefer to volunteer only during the summer.

Another example of seasonal volunteer work involves older adults who travel during the winter months or travel to a vacation area for the summer. Having volunteers take months off at a time can make it difficult for volunteer engagement professionals to plan effectively.

Below are some tips to help:

  • Design project-based volunteer roles
  • Create seasonal positions
  • Episodic volunteer positions
  • Remote volunteer positions

Promising Practices for the Engagement of Older Volunteers

As older volunteers can often be the backbone of the volunteer work force, it is crucial that they are thoughtfully engaged.

Use thoughtful recruiting techniques that are sensitive to the preferences and circumstances of older volunteers. Make sure that the volunteer’s environment and circumstances are well crafted for volunteer satisfaction. Finally, make sure to champion the opportunities coming from  older volunteers while also managing the challenges.

Additional information and detail is available in MAVA’s 28 page report, Tapping into the Strengths of Older Volunteers, available here.

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