Community and Comfort: Tips for retaining older volunteers

Nearly 60 nonprofit professionals gathered in Los Angeles recently for a workshop on how to recruit, deploy and retain volunteers over 50. Their advice: Create a sense of community and comfort so your volunteers feel safe, valued and connected to others of all ages.

The Eisner Foundation, which funds innovative and effective intergenerational programs (including Encore.org’s Gen2Gen campaign), hosted the event to release and discuss a new handbook, “Experienced Helping Hands: Why older volunteers can be your best resource and how to engage them.”

Step one, said Mike Lansing, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of the LA Harbor, is to create an intentional strategy to recruit older volunteers and include a dedicated position focused on managing these relationships. A full-time volunteer director focused on older volunteers “opened the doors to recruiting, engaging and retaining seniors in our programming,” he said.

Lauren Humphrey, former volunteer manager at 826LA, stressed the importance of listening and creating an environment where older volunteers feel heard, respected, safe and valued. The organization hosts Senior Roundtables to invite people 50+ to share their experiences, offer suggestions for improvement, and identify ways to recruit more volunteers like them.

Why take the time and energy to repeatedly invite critique? “For us, it’s without a doubt the consistency and reliability” older volunteers provide when they feel respected, she said.

Humphrey talked about the bevy of life changes that happen between ages 18 and 40 — moving, changing jobs, having children — and how older adults are often more stable volunteers. When they return week after week, kids start to see them as a reliable presence in their lives, and this creates an opportunity for special relationships to develop.

Younger volunteers are much more likely to “ghost you” (i.e., disappear without communication) if they aren’t happy, Humphrey said, adding that seniors tend to be more direct and honest about what they need and let you know if you aren’t delivering.

Humphrey’s advice? “As much as possible, when a volunteer is having an issue with your organization, put your emotions to the side. See what you can pull from them and explore if it’s affecting other volunteers.”

A former educator, Luisa Latham volunteers with CASA as a court-appointed special advocate for a child in the foster care system. A volunteer at various organizations for the past 10 years, Latham said, “I didn’t really think of it as retirement. I just segued into volunteerism as my next career.”

When exploring a new opportunity, she’s drawn to the population served. But what keeps her there is more complex and reinforces the importance of being heard and valued.

“What keeps me is the opportunity to work with peers,” Latham said, “and not just implement but also contribute to the construction of the service that’s happening. I need to feel I’m learning and growing and having a meaningful impact.”

Being flexible is also key to retaining older volunteers. Organizations demonstrate their ability to accommodate older volunteers by:

  • Having multiple ways for volunteers to apply, not just online.
  • Making sure the font size on recruitment materials isn’t tiny.
  • Picking up the phone to let people know about upcoming projects.
  • Including pictures of older volunteers in all of your collateral.
  • Finding creative ways to engage them on social media (e.g,. “What advice would you give to yourself as a child?”)
  • Being mindful that fingerprint scanning technologies (for background checks required to work with kids) may have a hard time reading the prints of older volunteers, and looking into other options.
  • Remembering to ask them what’s going on in their lives, and helping them to find other ways to stay involved if, for example, they can no longer drive.

For more on why older volunteers can be your best resource, check out this handbook produced by The Eisner Foundation and join the Gen2Gen Toolbox group on Facebook — a place for youth-serving organizations and leaders to learn practical strategies and share ideas about engaging older adults to help children and youth thrive.