Boomers are attractive volunteers, and it’s not just the sheer strength of their numbers — 77 million. They are living longer. They are more educated than previous generations. And, especially appealing: They bring well-honed skills and years of real-world work and life experience.
“This generation, this cohort of Americans, is the healthiest, best educated generation of Americans across this traditional age of retirement,” says Dr. Erwin Tan, who heads the Senior Corps program at the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency in Washington. “The question for us is how can we as a country not afford to mobilize this huge source of human capital to meet the vital needs of our communities.”
Tan says nonprofits are retooling to attract more boomers by offering a variety of skills-based opportunities as well as more flexibility, such as nontraditional hours or projects that don’t require a trip to the office and can be completed at home.
Mike Carr of Fort Wayne, Ind., is exactly the kind of skillful boomer sought by communities.
Carr, 65, retired about a year ago as an accountant for Verizon Communications. Instead of golfing or parking himself on the couch, he volunteers with low-income people and military families, helping them prepare and file their tax returns.
Carr also volunteers as treasurer for a church group and helps people with paperwork for food stamps and unemployment.
“There’s so much in the news today that’s very negative and a lot of it I can’t do a whole lot about,” says Carr. “But at least here in the community that I live in, there are some things that I can do to help others.”
About a third of boomers, ages 48 to 66 years, tend to gravitate toward opportunities with a religious underpinning, according to CNCS figures. That was followed by volunteer opportunities in education, 22 percent; social service, 14 percent; and hospitals, 8 percent.
The percentage of boomers volunteering these days, however, is on the decline.
Nearly 22 million baby boomers gave their time in communities across the country in 2010. That’s about 28.8 percent of boomers, down slightly from 29.9 percent in 2007 and from 33.5 percent in 2003, according to the community service corporation.
“What I think we’re seeing is baby boomers coming out of the period of peak volunteering,” says Nathan Dietz, former associate director of research at CNCS and now a senior program manager with the Partnership for Public Service. “They are getting older, and people as they get older volunteer a little less often.”
Peak age for volunteering tends to be in the mid-30s and 40s, says Dietz, when married couples and those with children are more likely to be exposed to situations in which people need volunteers — say, coaching for a child’s soccer team or giving time to local scouts or schoolchildren as a mentor or group leader.
An August 2011 Associated Press-National Constitution Center Poll found that 65 percent of baby boomers had done some type of volunteer activities through or for an organization over the past year. That is significantly less than adults younger than boomers. The top reasons baby boomers did not volunteer in the past year were not having the time, 69 percent, and health issues or physical limitations, 19 percent.
“We all have to give back,” says 60-year-old Herrala, who retired four years ago from her longtime job recruiting volunteers for Marquette County. “A part of paying for our spot on Earth is to help those who need help.”
Herrala is volunteering as part of an American Red Cross team dispatched to disasters. She also now has time to turn to a great passion of hers: health care.
Herrala says she’s seen too many people in desperate need of health care, so she began volunteering with a program called the Medical Care Access Coalition. It provides medical care to low-income people without insurance.
One experience Herrala says she’ll never forget was the day a woman without dental care came to her with dentures that didn’t fit properly. Every time the woman needed to talk, she had to take out her teeth so she could speak. Herrala tried to help her find a dentist.
“It gives me a sense of satisfaction knowing you can do something to help someone else,” Herrala said.