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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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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