4 Reasons to Embrace Gen-Mix Volunteerism

From lockdowns to mask-wearing to vaccination, COVID-19 has been one of the most polarizing issues of our time.

Among these stark divisions—arising from perceived vulnerability to the virus, both in health and economic terms—is the one between the generations. This manifestation of the “generation gap” presents a new challenge for the voluntary sector post-pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, Boomers (born pre-1965) and Gen X (born 1965-1980) could boast the highest volunteer rates, and Millennials (born 1981-1996) outpaced any previous generation in volunteering. However, according to research by Points of Light, post-pandemic Gen Z (those born 1997-2010) are more likely to volunteer. Although many nonprofit leaders feel the need to encourage older volunteers to return, engaging the young is certainly an opportunity not to overlook.

In my work, I am privileged to engage with hundreds—sometimes thousands—of nonprofit professionals across the US and Canada, hearing first-hand of such challenges as volunteer recruitment and nurturing cohesive cross-generational volunteer communities. Engaging the young, side by side with older volunteers who are still motivated and able to engage, is exciting for many and, yet, daunting for many others. Nevertheless, the benefits of doing so are clear and profound. Here are four compelling reasons to incorporate “gen-mix” or, better termed, “co-generational,”[1] volunteerism into your engagement strategy.

1. Program Innovation

With five generations active in the workplace, there is a growing body of evidence from employers to show that co-generational programs foster innovation. Nonprofits can learn from the business world by finding ways to combine each generation’s values, work ethics, communication styles, and skillsets to address difficult-to-solve issues in the communities where the nonprofits are active.

2. “Knowledge spillover”

Every individual, regardless of age, has skills and experience that can benefit mission-driven organizations. Furthermore, volunteers value learning from and sharing with each other. Among volunteers who have served co-generationally, 65% of Gen Z reported having learned something new from an older volunteer and 75% of Boomers reported sharing something they know with a younger volunteer. Simply put, co-generational teamwork will not only strengthen the outcomes of the program in the communities it serves but also foster greater intergenerational respect among volunteers.

3. Program Stability

An age-diverse volunteer base is a must for nonprofits, most of which experienced the sudden loss of its older volunteers during the pandemic. It could happen again, at any point, and like the last time, not all older volunteers will choose to transition to remote volunteering. Age diversity fuels sustainability, as it ensures a greater pipeline of human talent.

4. Volunteer Diversity

By building an age-diverse volunteer corps, nonprofits can broaden their volunteer base in other ways. For example, the 2020 census shows that 49.8% of children in the US are people of color, meaning that recruiting more young people will naturally expand the racial diversity of the corps over time. Additionally, offering co-generational opportunities may advance diversity goals, as, according to CoGeneration’s recent report, “young people, Black and Hispanic people of all ages are especially keen to work across generations.” Of course, diversity is not limited to race. And it’s worth noting that younger people have grown up in a world where it is easier than in previous generations to identify as queer, neurodiverse, or disabled, and they have access to technologies that support social and employment integration.

Of course, designing an age-diverse volunteer program is not without its challenges. Organizations must create appropriate gen-mix volunteer opportunities, have the in-house management and tech capacity, build a positive culture, and ensure that safeguarding policies for young and old are robust.

Despite the challenges, the voluntary sector not only needs to embrace age-diversity for its sustainability but also play a vital role in healing the rift between generations that has widened since 2020. Fortunately, there is a strong asset upon which to build—the belief of nearly all (96.4% of those surveyed) that working across generations can help American better solve its problems. That’s a great place to start.

Beth Steinhorn is President of VQ Volunteer Strategies and co-editor of Transforming Disruption to Impact: Rethinking Volunteer Engagement for a Rapidly Changing World, out now from Amplify Publishing. To learn more about this topic, read the chapter by Phyllis N. Segal, Senior Fellow at CoGeneration (formerly Encore.org), “Co-Generational Service: A Disruption to Increase Impact.”

[1] According to CoGenerate (formerly Encore.org), “co-generational volunteering” is multiple generations collaborating to address issues and solve problems, working together in support of the same cause.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

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Casting Your Nonprofit Board’s Net WIDER

In some ways, it seems the conversation about nonprofit board diversity has been happening for decades, yet the 2021 Leading with Intent study from BoardSource revealed that, in the US, 78% of board members and 83% of nonprofit board chairs are white.

But, as we know, diversity is not only a race issue, and the study also shows that 99% are cisgender and about 70% over the age of 45.

These are disheartening figures indeed; however, they are unsurprising, given that board recruiting, cultivation, and evaluation require much more attention from the sector than they currently receive. So, what should nonprofits be aiming for?

The WIDER Goal

For a successful board recruitment strategy, nonprofits must think WIDER.

W is for Welcoming

Organizational culture is critical for attracting a broader range of board applicants, and before a board can be diversified, a nonprofit needs to fully examine inclusivity across the spectrum of activity. Is the organization merely an echo chamber or is room made for differing views? Also, regularly review the general onboarding process and consider more bespoke onboarding activities tailored to individuals.

I is for Inclusive

To ensure that nobody is excluded from service due to lack of prior board experience, a board-buddy program can be useful. Teambuilding programs will also help new, inexperienced board members to integrate with existing board members more quickly.

D is for Diverse

Crucial, too, is to recognize that nobody, not even CEOs of nonprofits are immune to unconscious bias. Project Implicit is a survey tool developed by Harvard University that will help identify such biases. Ongoing diversity training for the board to address any biases is essential.

E is for Equitable

Sometimes board hierarchies can emerge that are based on the relative wealth of board members. Remember that a board has 3 functions: strategy, governance, and resourcing, and also remember that fundraising ability is not the sole facet of resourcing. Look at what each board member brings to the table in terms of educational experience, industry experience, and life experience and treat all assets as equal in value.

R is for Representative

Nonprofits need a strategy for recruitment that is not about filling vacant seats at the board table; it must be rooted in the needs of the communities it serves. Indeed, the same study shows that nearly 50% of the nonprofits surveyed did not believe that their boards had the diversity required to build trust with their communities. Recruiting board members with shared lived experiences as beneficiaries is not always/often possible, but try to get as close as possible. You could also consider setting up a “shadow board” composed of community members that feed into the official board.

Unfortunately, despite many matching platforms serving the for-profit sector, there remains very few effective, scalable, or efficient board-matching services for the nonprofit sector at this time. Nevertheless, with the right vision and leadership, technology can help board recruitment become more successfully diverse, but only on the condition that the sector, its funders, and every nonprofit applies WIDER values to board recruitment and governance.

Read more about the need for and development of technological solutions for improving board-level leadership in Doug Bolton’s chapter, “Technology and Services are Poised to Create WIDER Nonprofits” in Transforming Disruption to Impact: Rethinking Volunteer Engagement for a Rapidly Changing World, out now from Amplify Publishing.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

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Purpose-Driven Volunteer Impact, Purpose-Driven Language

The number of volunteers mobilized.
Number of hours served.
Number of agency partners engaged.

These metrics will be familiar to anyone working in the voluntary sector who have had to report their activities. As you might discern from the use of italics, the nonprofit world communicates with a certain tone, which might not be doing volunteerism any favors. “Mobilized” sounds authoritarian, “served” sounds transactional, and “engaged” sounds soulless.

In her chapter “Purpose Driven Volunteer Impact” in the new book Transforming Disruption to Impact: Rethinking Volunteer Engagement for a Rapidly Changing World, nonprofit consultant Sue Carter Kahl says: “Language influences actions and can inadvertently narrow how we define impact. For example, it is common to talk about measuring impact. Unfortunately, measuring frames impact in terms of numbers only [which can be] poorly suited to illuminating the complexity of nonprofit work, which deals with humans and transformation.”

Words, therefore, are powerful tools—for good or bad—so is it wise to regularly rethink the ones we use?


Among a great many other disruptions, COVID-19 sparked what’s been dubbed The Great Resignation—a mass exodus of workers from employment following a sudden review of their life and work in the light of the pandemic. It is no passing fad, either. Surveys suggest that Americans (indeed, people all over the world) are ready at any time to quit their jobs if those jobs are no longer fulfilling. In short, we have become a more purpose-driven society.

However, the language we use as a sector has for too long reflected the demand from funders and advocates for statistical outputs. But this no longer serves the need for mission-driven outcomes. Indeed, even the terms “outputs” and “outcomes” are problematic: would everyone who’s interested in hearing about the work you do share your understanding of what this jargon means?

It’s more pressing than ever that organizations reflect on the language they use so that it matches potential volunteers’ sense of purpose, desire to make a difference, and longing to be part of a social group.


Here are a few questions to ask regarding the language of your volunteer program.

Is our language inclusive?

This question is harder than it appears because, sometimes, the language of inclusion can, in fact, be alienating. Take “intersectionality,” for example. While commonplace among nonprofit professionals, this word means very little to many people without a definition. Jargon is useful shorthand for many of us, but it can put off potential volunteers, so look out for it and find a work around, even if it means using longwinded phrases.

Also, weed out functional “funder speak.” Consider more emotive alternatives, such as replacing “mission” with “purpose” or “value” with “worth” or “measuring” with “capturing.”

Is our language specific?

Some common vocabulary is guilty of being too vague. Take “community,” for example. What community are you talking about, exactly? Using broad terms can be dehumanizing, especially when they relate to race, gender, and disability.

Is our language authentic?

This relates to both inclusivity and specificity in that it is about reflecting and respecting the language of the people you work with. How do your clients and beneficiaries talk about the issues affecting them? What vocabulary do they use? It might not always be appropriate vernacular, but it’s always beneficial to listen and, whenever possible, provide a platform for the voices from within the communities you work with, rather than superimposing the voice of your organization.

In conclusion, then, the topic of language does not solely pertain to volunteer programs; it should be addressed across the organization’s operations, from fundraising to service provision. Clear, consistent terminology and vocabulary will reassure staff, stakeholders, volunteers, and beneficiaries alike.

Jerome Tennille is a corporate responsibility and social impact strategist, and a co-editor of Transforming Disruption to Impact: Rethinking Volunteer Engagement for a Rapidly Changing World, out now from Amplify Publishing. For more information, read Dr. Sue Carter Kahl’s chapter, “Purpose-Driven Volunteer Impact.”

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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Mattering: The Growing Volunteer Motivator

The sticky note on the side of my desk reads, “Making a difference is a way to know you matter.”

Uncharacteristically (and regrettably!), I didn’t write down which colleague or friend said that while on a conference call, but I know that, as soon as I heard it, I grabbed my sticky pad and wrote it down. Now, at some point every day, I catch sight of this little green square of paper that shares such a profound message.

When training nonprofit leaders, I often share that volunteers want to make a difference. Rarely have I gone deeper than the obvious impacts on solving problems in the community to explore what making a difference means on an individual level. Yet, this sticky note stares at me every day. “Making a difference is a way to know you matter.”


The term “mattering” was coined in 1981 (by Rosenberg and McCullough), and it refers to our perception of personal significance in the world.

In recent years, the term has been applied to the motivation of Gen Z in the workplace. As these young adults enter the workforce, they are less willing than previous generations to do jobs that they didn’t care about, and this applies equally to volunteering. But it would be wrong to assume that only young volunteers are interested in mattering. Every volunteer wants to feel valued, whether a senior or teen. Placing mattering front and center in our volunteer engagement strategy can be a powerful tool to drive success – on all fronts.

Recent events, including the unprecedented number of protests, fueled by technologies that make it easy to mobilize large groups of people around such issues as racial justice, women’s rights, and climate change, have elevated the concept of mattering. Many more people have been driven to action by anger or guilt—both powerful motivators for transformational engagement. Some are angry about leaders who seem to ignore (or even facilitate) such issues as abuse of civil liberties. Others, potentially ashamed that they may have been complicit in a problem, feel the need to make amends. Since participating in marches is one way to take action on these feelings, volunteer engagement leaders have the opportunity to be aware of and leverage these emotional drivers.


Of course, engagement should, first and foremost, be built around the desired outcomes for the community, as mission-fulfilment should be the primary driver. But the impact of volunteering on the volunteers themselves is growing in importance to organizations and, increasingly, funders too. Fortunately, mattering can be integrated into every aspect of a volunteer program.

  1. Recruitment: Focus communications not only on how the volunteer experience matters to beneficiaries but also to the volunteers themselves.
  2. Screening and Onboarding: When screening and onboarding volunteers, take the time to really understand and document what motivates them. Understanding their internal drivers and the skills they bring to a project may inspire additional ways that they can serve.
  3. Training: Engage volunteers in training other volunteers. Acknowledge and welcome the skills and experience that even new volunteers bring to the table – and consider how to integrate that into the training, thereby welcoming new perspectives and demonstrating that new volunteers bring with them assets that matter.
  4. Recognition: Communicate your appreciation for volunteers in large and small ways. Increasingly, volunteers value understanding the difference they are making as part of the volunteer community. While pins and parties can be nice, a simple shoutout on Instagram or a personal phone call of thanks from organizational leadership can be even more meaningful. Knowing they matter will grow the volunteers’ engagement in the short term and secure their support (perhaps as donors) in the long term.

The upshot is: mattering matters!

It lies at the very heart of moving beyond temporary transactional volunteerism to enduring transformational civic engagement, so it’s worth investing time to review at your engagement practices through the lens of mattering.

Beth Steinhorn is President of VQ Volunteer Strategies and co-editor of Transforming Disruption to Impact: Rethinking Volunteer Engagement for a Rapidly Changing World, out now from Amplify Publishing. To learn more, read the chapter by Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light, “Moving Beyond Transactional Volunteerism to Transformational Civic Engagement.”

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