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Principles for Retaining Volunteers Part 9: Generational Theory Among Volunteers

By Daniel C. Olsen, Senior Consultant, Special Districts Association of Oregon

Today, most people are familiar with the terms “baby boomers’, “Generation X”, “Millennials”, and Generation Z”.  These are terms related to generational theory.

I first became acquainted with generational theory when I listened to a presentation by Dr. Morris Massey. His presentation was titled, “What you are is where you were when”. The presentation was entertaining, informative and enjoyable.

In your volunteer organizations you will encounter different generations. It seems that most discussion is about the differences among generations. Unfortunately, they may be in a negative context.

The senior generation may talk about the “smart aleck young know it all’s” The younger generation may express their opinions about the “flatulent gas bags who are over the hill” These general attitudes are not helpful and can cause a polarization among different age groups/generations.

You will be challenged.

Think about your volunteers. What generation do they belong?

  • Traditionalists (born between 1928-1945)
  • Baby boomers ((born between 1946-1964)
  • Generation X (born between 1965-1980)
  • Generation Y – Millennials (born between 1981-1996)
  • Generation Z (born between 1997-2015)

However, different generations can have more in common that you may think. Three of the more important aspects are the following:

  • They want quality leadership

Volunteers, regardless of their generation, want to work for leaders that they respect and trust.

They want a leader who cares about them, takes the time to find out what they want to accomplish, and who listens to their opinions. They want a relationship with their leader that is productive, respectful, open and trusting.

  • They want to be appreciated and recognized

Volunteers from different generations all want to be appreciated and recognized for their work and contribution to the organization. They want to know their hard work and dedication is appreciated, recognized, and rewarded.

  • They want their time respected

Volunteers from different generations want their time respected. They want to be able to spend time with family and friends. They want to be part of an organization that values a volunteer time/life balance.

Keep in mind, while volunteers from different generations have quite a lot in common, they may choose to express themselves differently, communicate differently, or focus on various aspects to achieve the goals.

A story about “Hank”

I would like to share with a story about Henry Stearns, or “Hank” to his friends. Hank was a wise man. He was a diligent worker, conscientious and methodical. His nature was easy going.

Hank loved airplanes. He talked to me about working in an aircraft manufacturing plant. It was in 1940, and he was working at an aircraft manufacturing plant in southern California. Hank had learned sheet metal working skills. Because of his knowledge and skills, he was hired and put in charge of a crew at the plant. However, Hank was young and low in seniority so was given the night shirt crew.

Keep in mind that the best workers, were placed on the day crew, the next best on the swing shift and the rest were assigned on the night shift. As people expected, the night crew, or graveyard shift, was the lowest producer in the plant. They were a “mixed bag” of individuals from different generations.

However, Hank was not deterred. He took his job very seriously. Hank believed you should get to know your crew members as people. With his easy-going style, he would talk with his crew members and asked them about their families. He regarded the workplace as an extension of their family. He asked them about their interests. He also listened to their concern and aspirations. What did they want to accomplish with their future. As Hank collaborated with them, he would share his skills and knowledge about sheet metal working and metal fabrication.

As the weeks and months passed, the production levels on his night shift increased. Of course, this was a surprise to those in upper management. The output was rivaling the swing shift and pushing on the day shift.

They must have thought Hank was a genius. And he was. He was a person who took an interest in the crew. Yes, Hank was wise man. And I am proud to say that he was my father-in-law.

Lessons from “Hank”

The lessons from Hank apply to workers in an aircraft manufacturing plant and to your volunteers.

First, like Hank, view the people in your organization as individuals, each with talents and abilities.

Second, take an interest in them as individuals. Hank learned about their families. He learned about their interests, both as employees but as people. He listed to their concerns. When they had a good idea, he incorporated it with what they were doing. And he learned what their aspirations were…their hopes and dreams for the future. Do the same with your volunteers.

Third, Hank believed on-the-job training was important. He shared his skills and knowledge with his crew and helped them to become better at their job. Have an on-the-job training program for your volunteers. Invest in them. Develop your volunteers.

One final thought...

Have senior volunteers mentor newer volunteers. Senior volunteers have a wealth of knowledge ranging from education, training and experience.  Have them share their wealth of knowledge with your newer volunteers and have newer volunteers share their knowledge and expertise with senior volunteers. Each generation of volunteers should share and collaborate together to build better relationships and strengthen your volunteer organization.