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Generation V for Volunteer

Thomas McKee

The "bookend" generations can be your very best volunteers -- if you know how to manage them.

We're sitting on an untapped gold mine of volunteers: those just entering the workforce and those just leaving. It always puzzles me, then, when I hear these two questions from leaders -- and I hear them a lot.

How can I get the young adults to volunteer? They're too busy living for themselves.

How can I get retirees to volunteer? They keep telling me, "I've served my time."

I think, more than actual reality, these questions are influenced by stereotypes about how difficult these generational workers can be. Consider this recent survey reported in BusinessWeek magazine:

Career site Jobfox has surveyed over 200 recruiters about their perceptions of employee performance based on generation. And for the workforce's youngest members -- often referred to as Generation Y or the Millennials -- the results weren't pretty. Only 20 percent of the recruiters classified the Millennials as "generally great performers"... And the only demographic that rivaled the Gen Yers for unexceptional performance was their bookend generation, the Traditionalists (63 and older), who were considered "generally great performers" by only 25 percent of the recruiters surveyed.

When my son Jonathan and I were researching for our book, The New Breed, we discovered that these two "difficult" groups of staff -- those young twentysomething professionals and those in their 60s -- can actually be the best volunteers. So if you're not tapping these two resources, you're missing a great opportunity to expand your volunteer base. And they're willing to volunteer -- the key isn't in getting these two groups of people to volunteer, it's in learning how to effectively manage them once you've got them.

Take my five-question quiz to see whether you're Boomer and Millennial volunteer-friendly. 

QUESTION 1: Do you have a cause?

"The world revolved around us as children. We're the spoiled brats," says Cathie Looney, a nationally known speaker and generational expert, about the late- and post-Boomers. "We had a decade-long temper tantrum beginning in the mid '60s. In the '80s, it was acquire, acquire, acquire...We're the 'I, I, I, me, me, me' generation. We want to think of ourselves as altruistic, but we always make sure that we take a picture of ourselves standing in front of the house that we helped rebuild."

After years of raising children and career-building, members of this generation are returning to lives of activism. Now that the children of the '60s have entered the 21st century, many realize that living for self hasn't been the fulfilling life they expected. They volunteer because the "We want to change the world" of the 1960s still beats in their hearts. Some are leaving lucrative careers to join the Peace Corps or Christian mission agencies.

Millennials are also cause-driven. Corporate recruiters report that company philanthropy and building a reputation for direct involvement are hot topics at campus job fairs. Laysha Ward, vice president of community relations for Target, told the Wall Street Journal, "Recruiters from all regions are hearing younger job candidates bring up the company's 'commitment to the community as one of the No. 1 reasons they want to come work for us.' "

The Answer: Don't recruit these generations for an isolated task. Recruit for a task to fulfill a broader mission. Secular organizations are masters of promoting their mission. As ministry leaders, we have the most important mission in the world of building the kingdom of God, yet we too often get so focused on a particular vacancy that we forget how it fits in the greater cause. All of your volunteers should understand and sense how their role helps accomplish the mission. One of the most important jobs of any leader is to keep the mission alive.

A vision without a task is but a dream.

A task without a vision is drudgery.

A vision and a task is the hope of the world.

-From a church in England, 1730

Think through the mission of your ministry and promote it. Both these generations will respond to causes. They want to make a difference, not a contribution.

QUESTION 2: Do you provide opportunities to use professional skills?

My wife, who spent most of her professional career as an English professor, is volunteering to teach English to a group of young teens. Recently she said about her volunteer work, "This is one of the most important things I'm doing right now."

Those who are retiring and leaving behind a lifetime of experience are eager to help you accomplish your vision. Many of them had significant leadership positions such as owning companies, managing multimillion dollar projects, or leading private and government organizations.

Increasingly, Millennials are waiting to marry until their late 20s. Many of these single professionals have high-tech, relational, or leadership skills that we need in our ministries. Last October I was in Wyoming training a group of AmeriCorps VISTAs, who were working to fight illiteracy and improve health services. Their mantra was "Fight poverty with a passion." At lunch I visited with one young woman who was a recent college graduate and had joined VISTA for one year before starting her professional career. She told me she'd just completed her one-year term and was signing up for another. I thought as I talked with her, Why can't we recruit these young people in our churches to give a year or two in our ministries?

The Answer: Don't ask these volunteers to stuff envelopes. This doesn't mean they're not interested in getting their hands dirty or doing labor. Not at all; they're not afraid of jumping in with a team when a job needs to get done. However, the organization that uses high-quality, professionally trained volunteers only to do unskilled labor will lose many of them.

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