February 24, 2013

Cultivating Volunteers

Posted in Marketing, Valuing Volunteers, Youth Volunteering tagged , , , at 4:18 am by Sue Hine

496983747_bade419493Just two months into the year and already there are plenty of agendas being talked up, plenty of rising anxiety levels in community sector organisations, accompanied by what sounds like, and feels like, a sinking lid for programmes and practice.  Paying for criminal checks on volunteers, getting the charities legislation reviewed and the prospect of new contracting and funding arrangements through ‘social bonds’ are just three of the big picture issues.  I shall leave them to other platforms for the moment.

My matter for this week is not as the headline suggests, the community gardeners.  Nor am I presenting yet another promo for best practice volunteer recruitment.  The niggle at the back of my head is the continuing interest in courting Gen X and Y to engage in volunteering, as though it was a new and untapped resource for organisations short on volunteers.

I wrote about Youth Volunteering a bit over a year ago, being enthusiastic about all the evidence of increases in young people’s involvement.  And they continue to be involved, even as part of whole family volunteering.  More recently Volunteering New Zealand has published a paper on UN Youth NZ; Labour Party youth are on a roll this year to connect with local community groups; in January  United Nations announced a trust fund to support Youth Volunteerism.  There is no end to the ways young people can be involved in their communities, and you can see this even at early school years when class projects open children’s minds to community and community needs.

Here is my ‘yes but’ question:

Are we cultivating volunteers or promoting the cult of youth?

The rise in youth volunteering is capturing attention at a time when retirees, the ‘baby-boomer’ generation, could be expected to join the ranks of volunteers in droves.  They are not, for various reasons: they continue in paid employment; they are full-time care-givers for grandchildren; they are travelling the world and ‘pursuing other interests’.  Yet there are still enough older people – and we can see them working in our communities every day throughout the year – to be a significant proportion in volunteer statistics.  This is the expanding age group that is proving such a burden on governments and age-support organisations throughout the western world.  To which I would say: “if you don’t use them, you’ll lose them”.

My plea is for inclusion, for all population groups.  I am thinking of skills that older people can offer from their employment experience.  I am thinking of tolerance and acceptance of difference that comes with age and experience, along with a raft of communication and relationship skills.  Of course they do not have these skills on their own, and nor is the wisdom of age always informed by tolerance.  But neither do young people hold all the answers to achieving organisation goals through volunteering.

Dissonance between age and youth is as old as time.  This is not the time to pitch one in favour of the other.  Volunteering could be the much-needed space where young and older New Zealanders come together to learn from each other and to appreciate the perspectives of different generations.  That’s where leadership for the 21st century could come from.

Disclaimer: Please do not think I am carrying personal angst in writing the above.  By conventional dating I belong to the Silent Generation, those who never spoke out, who accepted everything thrown at them.  I like to think I have moved with my times.


PS:  Comment per email sent by Salle-Ann Ehms:
As always, your blog is very thought-provoking. In the light of inclusiveness, I thought that you’d appreciate this photo I took last week-end. It’s not the best shot but I love the contrasts; youth-aged,
caucasian-asian, able-disabled, but what I most love is that none of those things are really relevant, the caring is palpable. Love it!


  1. Jane Scripps said,

    Hi Sue, what I don’t see in your selection of volunteers are migrants. I think we are missing a big part of the ‘not yet volunteering’ group when we do not include them in discussion. Most migrants seek to become part of their community, or at least seek to not be lonely and look for some level of acceptance within their own specific and the wider district they have come to.
    I am putting some thought into how community integration can be assisted by facilitating a discussion between migrant communities through volunteering. I hear a range of sad tales about isolated family members, dislocated youths and we see the results of true dislocation in England, Europe as well as our mates Australia.
    I do agree that intergenerational volunteering could be advanced and throughout migrant communities as well as those who have been here some time, I am just saying…..


    • Sue Hine said,

      Go for it Jane – of course migrants and refugees are part of a generational picture. There is quite a record of migrants finding employment and social integrationn through their volunteering.


  2. Kim Clifton said,

    We (our org) are slowly getting improved balance to reflect a good mixture and have to agree with the different experience levels and also things like availability and stability. We engage youth for IT and administration or physical tasks primarily as volunteer roles like driving or visiting do not fit so well. Sometimes it may be a challenge as a manager to find suitable roles for everyone or indeed everyone needed for the varying roles. I find the need to sometimes get creative or sometimes more practical to find the right solutions. All that said if I did not have a mix of young and old and some in between my job would become well – terrifying. Thank you for your pearls of wisdom. Regards from a Gen X


    • Sue Hine said,

      Good stuff Kim! You are demonstrating a creative and innovative management of volunteers. I might have inferred in the blog that youth volunteers lacked skills and experience – not my intention at all, because there are plenty of Gen Xers and Ys demonstrating abilities that outclass the oldies at the same age, and I’m not referring to technology. Best wishes for continued good efforts.


  3. Hi Sue!
    Great insight!
    Do we bend our rules to attract youth? Do we reinvent our roles just because we are supposed to have young volunteers? I think we can all get caught up in what the “trends” are which is fine if we don’t compromise our mission and our own sound judgement. You are so correct (and I don’t mean to put words in your mouth) that we want the best volunteers of all ages and backgrounds. No one group is going to save us-at least I haven’t seen one yet!
    Thanks, this is very timely!\-Meridian


    • Sue Hine said,

      Thanks for your support Meridian. I think we know enough these days (we should know!) about exclusiveness and discrimination to avoid turning into a fashionista. Sometimes we need to be reminded how a community comes in many different forms, and so do volunteers, and so do the people supported by volunteers.


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