Skip to Content

Tools and Strategies for Boomer Volunteer Engagement

Jill Friedman Fixler & Jill Canono

As practioners in the field of volunteer engagement, we thought it would be helpful to lend our perspective on tools and strategies for creating a culture of volunteer engagement that is boomer friendly. These tools are designed to take what you already know and adapt it to the needs of the boomer cohort.*

Stages of retirement:

*Fixler & Canono (C) 2004

When dealing with boomers who are considering or entering retirement, it is important to assess what stage of retirement they are in. Placing a boomer in the wrong assignment, that is not consistent with their current needs and desires about work, can be very damaging. The distress felt in this situation can cause the boomer to terminate as a volunteer, share stories of their poor experience with friends and family, and they may not elect to volunteer again.

The stages of retirement/transformation are:

  • Redirection: where the boomer decides if retirement or down shifting their career is appropriate, and economically feasible. They begin to clarify their values for their second act.
  • Research: the boomer elects to research their vocational and avocational options for their second act.
  • Retire/transformation: the boomer elects to downshift from full time employment, take on a new endeavor or career, or retire completely.
  • Rest: the boomer elects to take a time out before taking on anything new.
  • Respite: the boomer takes on something completely different from what they have done before or they travel to get away from it all.
  • Reflection: the boomer reflects on what they want for their second act financially, socially, avocationally, spiritually, religiously, connection to family, where they want to live, and what they want to do.
  • Redefine: this can often be a time of accelerated activity when they try on many things in an almost frenetic fashion. They may complain that they are too busy during this phase.
  • Reconnect: the boomer connects with their core values, they become clear about what they want and how to do it, and they seek ways to connect to others in their faith communities, their neighborhoods, their family, and their communities at large.
  • Reclaim: the boomer reclaims balance and order in their lives by selecting the activities that are most rewarding for them.
  • Regulate: many boomers seek freedom from schedules and commitments that are reminiscent of work responsibilities. They wish to do things on their time table. They may work seasonally, part-time, by the project or assignment, job share, in groups or teams, or as a coach or mentor.

You can ascertain which phase a boomer is in by asking questions during the selection phase of your volunteer engagement process:

  • What are your goals and plans for your retirement?
  • How long has it been since you retired or downshifted? What have you been doing in the interim?
  • What is most important to you about volunteering at this stage of your life?
  • What are your commitments at the present time?
  • What are the things that you most want to do as a volunteer? What are the things you are not interested in doing?
  • What skills do you possess that you will share with us willingly?

Tips on avoiding poor boomer placement:

  • Avoid giving them too much to do too soon. This is an easy path to volunteer dissatisfaction and burnout.
  • Pair new volunteers with seasoned volunteers. The mentoring process can be very rewarding, create opportunities for bonding among volunteers, and is helpful in the training process.
  • Make sure that you are clear about expectations for their work, hours, and length of time commitment.
  • Allow them great flexibility in determining where, when, and even how they perform their assignment. Consider job shares, team projects, and seasonal work.
  • Treat the volunteers as members of the team, consultants (if appropriate to their assignment) project managers, and colleagues.
  • Communicate frequently and transparently with volunteers about the “state of the state” of your organization.

Create community:

Retirement or downshifting may not be everything it is cracked up to be. Retirees/down shifters often report missing the community of work. Marc Freedman in his seminal work on boomers, Prime Time: How Baby Boomers will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America, made these observations about many retirees post retirement experiences:

  • Loss of wholeness and connectedness.
  • Feeling that they are no longer in the center of things.
  • Lamenting the loss of usefulness.
  • Missing the sense of belonging, camaraderie, identity, and community that comes with work with a purpose.
  • The experience of conflicting emotions from exhilaration, isolation, fear, and loneliness.

Volunteering can be the anecdote to the downside of retirement or down shifting work. By creating opportunities for community, volunteering can offer a way back to a sense of purpose, achievement, affiliation, and wholeness.

Tips on creating community:

  • When possible create teams, committees, or task force opportunities for volunteers.
  • Encourage volunteer participation in staff meetings and staff events.
  • Invite volunteer leadership input on selection of salaried staff.
  • Encourage the communal celebration of life cycle events such as birthdays, tenure anniversaries, and special occasions in the volunteer’s lives.
  • Commit to being there for the volunteers when confronted by illness or death of a loved one.
  • Promote opportunities to break bread together whenever possible. Encourage team breakfasts, luncheons, pot lucks, and coffee breaks.
  • Reward teams as well as individuals for work well done.
  • Create opportunities for self directed teams where the hierarchy from the world of work is less important than getting things done together and done at a high standard.

Develop Career Ladders and Leadership Opportunities:

By giving volunteers the opportunity for change, we can help to engage and retain them over time. They can change assignments, move into a training position, mentor new volunteers, serve as a coach or consultant to staff, lead teams, or chair committees. This mobility will decrease boredom, and increase volunteer efficacy in the short and long run.

Consider these options for career ladders and leadership opportunities:

  • Team leaders.
  • Project managers.
  • Recruiters.
  • Placement interviewers.
  • Supervisors.
  • Mentors.
  • Cross training.
  • Trainers.
  • Public speakers.
  • Curriculum designers.
  • Program evaluators.
  • Coaches.
  • Prospective board members.

Boomers Are Life Long Learners:

Another key to volunteer retention will be to build opportunities for boomers to have life long learning experiences.

  • On going and or in-service education can provide volunteers access to new information that will enhance their volunteer experience and performance.
  • Study groups on a subject of interest can provide another group/team experience for volunteers and can be self directed saving staff time and resources.
  • Pre-shift training on matters of current importance, communiqués from staff and volunteer management, and skill enhancement can do much to enhance volunteer education. Pre-shift training is a wonderful assignment for seasoned volunteers.
  • Volunteers can be used as researchers on a variety of issues and subjects. If there are things you need to know but you haven’t the time or resources to find out, this is a perfect assignment for either individuals or teams.
  • Consider utilizing volunteer expertise to translate organizational or issue information (i.e. medical terminology, legal terminology, and scientific terminology) into layman's terminology for newsletters and training programs.

Involvement in volunteer program management:

Creating opportunities for volunteers to participate in decisions that impact them can also enhance volunteer retention. Many seasoned volunteers will willingly assist in volunteer program management roles. The power of having volunteers in supervisory and training roles is not to be minimized.

  • Involve volunteers in planning their own recognition activities.
  • Volunteers often make the best screeners. Invite volunteers to do individual or group interviews where selection decisions are made.
  • Reward high performers by inviting them to be team leaders, supervisors, or trainers.
  • Encourage volunteers to conduct orientation programs. They are often your best recruiters.
  • Promote the role of volunteers by having volunteers make an annual presentation of program efficacy to the board of directors.
  • Form focus groups of volunteers to ask them what they want from the volunteer experience.

New roles for volunteers:

Many boomers are highly skilled individuals. They may possess professional skills that range from accounting, customer service, legal, finance, technological, to project management. Or they might have experience in the trades such as plumbing, electrical, carpentry, automobile repair, or construction. If asked, many in the boomer cohort will willingly offer their expertise to your organization.

  • Volunteers can be leaders of task forces to study issues and make recommendations for change.
  • Volunteers can provide coaching to professional staff or volunteer leadership in their area of expertise.
  • Volunteers can offer their experience on an as needed basis, or seasonally as need demands.
  • Volunteers can provide their expertise pro-bono to clients.
  • Volunteers can participate in planning meetings and retreats to lend their experience, expertise, and perspective.

Flexibility is the key:

Boomers will have lots of demands on their time from a second career, family obligations, their passion for hobbies and education, and travel. The more flexible that you can make the volunteer assignment, the more attractive it will be to boomers. "The availability, or lack or time, is still cited as the reason that most people do not participate, or participate more, in volunteer activities" - Volunteer Canada. The answers to these questions lead you to a more flexible enviornment for volunteers:

  • Can the work be done seasonally?
  • Can the work be done virtually?
  • Can the work be done on their own time?
  • Can the work be done in their own home?
  • Can they do a piece of a larger assignment?
  • Can they job share?
  • Can they be part of a team effort?

Collaborate with other programs:

Why reinvent the wheel when there are other programs that your volunteers can benefit from? Consider collaborations with like organizations to share training. Or try collaborating with programs where you can do some cultural exchanges. What about trying recruiting with another program? There are many ways to collaborate and your volunteers will benefit. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Try co-recruiting with similar organizations. Pool your money so that you can afford some advertising and marketing that will target boomers.
  • Collaborate with other organizations to provide outreach to pre-retiree programs through human resource departments. Create brown bag sessions to educate pre-retirees on volunteering opportunities in your community.
  • Partner with cultural organizations for field trips for volunteer recognition and ongoing education.
  • Share resources for volunteer training with similar organizations.
  • Provide cross training opportunities with similar organizations.
  • Join with other organizations to provide volunteer recognition events. By pooling your resources, you may be able to do more for the volunteers.
  • Collaborate with other organizations that have similar issues and/or similar clients. Create teams to look at new ways to address these issues and problems.
  • Be an active part of your peer community by joining professional networks for volunteer managers. The resources and networking opportunities for both personal and professional growth are abundant.

Change recruitment messaging to be appealing to boomers:

Boomers simply don't think of themselves or refer to their peers as old, senior citizens, or elders. We have to learn to appeal to volunteers from where they are."The current language of aging is obsolete and may be an impediment to change" - Reinventing Aging: Baby Boomers and Civic Engagement. Harvard School of Public Health-MetLife Foundation, 2004. Targeted messaging to this boomer cohort will reap big dividends if we speak their language.

  • Marc Freedman, in his book Prime Time How Baby Boomers will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America, recommends that we promote reconnecting, restarting, transforming, the new way, and building bridges to the next generation.
  • Mr. Freedman suggests that we describe volunteering opportunities as a way to focus on life as a continuing journey with never ending possibilities to learn, give and grow.
  • Mr. Freedman's book suggests that we can explain our volunteer experiences as a vision for a new age, your freedom and autonomy will not be compromised, and your wisdom, expertise, and talent are needed and wanted - as new ways to describe what volunteering in your second act has to offer.
  • It is highly recommended that organizations mention opportunities for community, meaningful work, and legacy in volunteer roles.

Train staff to work with volunteers as colleagues, project managers, and consultants:

Staff may be unprepared to change their role from volunteer supervisor to colleague. Fear for their jobs, fear of working with someone who is more skilled than they are, fear of the potential for volunteer poor performance, and lack of incentive to work collaboratively with volunteers may factor into poor volunteer and staff relationships.

  • Provide training for staff on how to engage with volunteers as colleagues, partners, team members, coaches, and project managers.
  • Encourage staff understanding of the benefits of working collaboratively with volunteers.
  • Create incentives for staff who work collaboratively with volunteers.
  • Recognize volunteer and staff collaborations in annual reports, team meetings, recognition events, holiday events, in newsletters, and on the website.
  • Ensure that employee position descriptions reflect volunteer responsibilities and hold employees accountable during performance reviews.

Connect with the trend of informal volunteering:

Vast numbers of volunteers give their time informally to their neighbors, family and friends. Some boomers may prefer opportunities for civic engagement that do not involve working through an agency - Reinventing Aging: Baby Boomers and Civic Engagement. Harvard School of Public Health-MetLife Foundation, 2004.What are the ways that we can connect with this trend in our organizations?

  • Keep forms and paperwork to a minimum.
  • Be clear about expectations and let volunteers work their magic in their own way.
  • Invite family members and people connected to clients to help you in informal and meaningful ways.
  • Remember that we are not the boss of volunteers, we are their colleagues, and treat them as such.
  • Break big assignments into manageable pieces that will be easy to accomplish.

Start engaging boomers now:

Boomers are less likely than their greatest generation parents to volunteer. When they do volunteer it is connected to their children and communities of faith. And many boomers are not as connected to their communities of faith as previous generations. As boomers begin to experience empty nests, they may lose their connection to volunteering. There are key questions about the relationship between parenthood and volunteer participation and whether baby boomers, currently some of the most engaged volunteers in the country, will continue to serve their communities after they have finished caring for their children. -50+ Volunteering: Working for Stronger Communities. Points of Light Foundation. It is not clear if the cohort will be as inclined to volunteer in later years unless we begin to entice them now.

Most boomers will tell you the commodity that they value most is time, as they currently enjoy so little of it. The advances in technologies of email, instant messaging, virtual work, and cell phones have extended work hours. The hallmark of effective campaigns to engage boomers in volunteering are programs that engage boomers on issues that are of interest to them. If you can build the case that their time can make an impact, that their time will make a difference, and that their time will be spent doing meaningful work, boomers are much more likely to be interested in what you have to offer.

  • Try outreach to communities of faith by providing education on your core issue such as homelessness, poverty, AIDS, child abuse, etc. Review models for individual and group involvement that demonstrate high level volunteer engagement. Consider having a boomer give the presentation.
  • Partner with other nonprofits to provide education to pre-retiree programs on volunteering. Human Resource Departments in larger companies may welcome guest speakers of this kind.
  • Develop issue education opportunities for groups to learn about issues and develop projects in response. Target faith community groups, Parent Teacher Organizations, neighborhood groups, retiree groups, and community service organizations.
  • Target outreach programming and boomer engagement promotions to parents of students graduating from high schools. Provide a meaningful alternative to “the empty nest” syndrome.
  • Host an event for the boomer friends, colleagues, and family members of current staff and volunteers.


Boomer engagement takes flexibility, planning, creativity, and innovation. When we invite volunteers to think out of the box with us, amazing results are possible. When we focus on the impact of the volunteer's work, we can create meaningful volunteer assignments. When we make inclusiveness and diversity a priority for volunteer engagement, our organizations are richer for it. When we collaborate with volunteers instead of treating them as subordinates, they flourish in this partnership relationship. And when we take the time to design volunteer assignments that are complimentary to the lifestyles of volunteers in their second act, we are inviting people to volunteer in a way that works for them. There may be no guarantees of reaching the boomer cohort, but if we don't make the effort to re-engineer our nonprofit cultures to embrace boomer values, skills, interests, and needs, we can be sure they won't make volunteering part of their second act planning.

"We are all going to get older. It is how you handle the changes that will make all the difference." - Oprah Winfrey

* Interestingly, the children of Boomers, often referred to as Echo Boomers or Millennials, share many characteristics with their parents. Many of these strategies will work equally well with Millennials.

Skip Footer