Most of us, at least people my age and older, end up volunteering for some agency. We will need to wait and see if succeeding generations, raised with a much higher degree of “self-care”, continue this collective tradition of community volunteerism. I am hopeful. I have heard from some in the volunteer sector that younger volunteers are more apt to offer their service in environmental causes than the traditional public service opportunities of churches, Lion’s clubs and women’s service clubs. That may well be true and it is certainly the case that many of the agencies that are currently struggling to find volunteers do so with a cultural context that would not be attractive to younger volunteers. But volunteerism is volunteerism and what is required at its core if offering your service for free and working with others in a more informal setting. From the messages I see sent to schools and pupils (I have a 15 year old daughter) I can see it will be challenging to reconcile this large commitment with the core message of “self-care” and self-interest that permeates the culture.
But whether it is a young person or senior or someone in my age bracket (middle age!) the key issue is motivation. What is it that brings you to that group? For many of my age group and younger it is the cause. So the key to maintain the morale of the group is to reinforce the rational for being in this agency as opposed to others. If your agency is one of assisting the poor then the spokespersons for the group need to attend to that issue often, otherwise volunteers will begin to wonder if their service is making a difference to the cause that keeps them up at night. But for older volunteers that is only part of the motivation, many have long years of service and the original reason for joining might be more relational or an expectation from society (then) or family. So cause is less of a factor and other reasons may be more important. The person would is animating these groups needs to be aware that for these folks affirmation, community connections and personal relationships are key.
My experience with this latter group is reminding them of the cause and the difference we make may not be a deciding factor to their continued involvement. These folks are also less likely to stick around if there is any tension, as the relational part of the work trumps any notion of cause. While you might be able to say to a younger volunteer, “I know you find the others in your group challenging to deal with but remember why we are doing this” for those who are part of your agency because of social expectations (that frankly no longer exist) the temptation to say, “I am 70 years old now, I don’t need this frustration in my life” is very strong.
What then is required of those who have leadership in an agency is to find ways to compromise and be creative about the ways volunteers work together. It may be required that certain volunteers, who desperately need to get their own way and make significant contributions to the cause, need to work more on their own and less in larger groups. That is a tricky matter to negotiate as all volunteers want to see equal treatment. But my experience is a “one size fits all” type of volunteerism is simply not workable in 2017. An asymmetrical approach may be the best way forward, to adjust the expectations and needs of every volunteer with the work the agency needs accomplished. The nimble requirement of non-profit leadership today is crucial to every agency’s success in carrying out its mission.