Boomers Seeking Personalized Volunteering

Surge in self-directed volunteering reflects desire to use specific skills and meet personal needs.

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If you have time and an interest in volunteering, you literally can create your own program. Aided by Internet sites that match needs and volunteers, along with other "do it yourself" online tools, boomers are rewriting the book on how volunteering works.

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AARP has kicked off a large volunteer effort through its Create the Good program and website. "People want more flexibility in their volunteering," says Barb Quaintance, AARP senior vice president for volunteer and civic engagement. There is a preference for self-directed volunteer efforts—more than half of all boomers select this approach, according to AARP—that allow people to satisfy their needs as well as those of the recipients they help.

Americans' willingness to volunteer has been steadily increasing, according to a survey from the government's Corporation for National & Community Service, which oversees the Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, and related volunteering programs. Across different age groups, the rate of volunteering has grown dramatically. More than 32 percent of adults ages 45 to 64 volunteer, the corporation says, up from 22 percent 20 years ago. For older volunteers, the rate has increased during the same period to more than 24 percent from 17 percent.

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It's important not to lump all older workers into the same category, says Patrick Corvington, who recently became CEO of the agency. "Seniors aren't monolithic," he says. "You've got probably three populations"—loose groupings he described as parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. "All of them want to make a difference, but I think they may want to make a difference in different ways."

At the younger end of the senior age spectrum are people who are still working or have recently retired. They might have a preference for skills-based volunteering, Corvington says, in which they can put their career skills to work in volunteer settings. Funding cutbacks during the recession have increased the needs of nonprofits, he notes. Accountants are needed to come in and work on agency finances. Social workers are needed to work with children and at-risk populations. Various nonprofits may need a range of skilled tradespeople—plumbers, electricians, and the like.

Older seniors, by contrast, tend to have been shaped by their past experiences. "Reading to kids and working in soup kitchens are still needed," Corvington says. "That's the volunteering that older folks came up doing, and that's what they're comfortable with."

But it's the wave of younger volunteers that is changing the model. "There's a whole new world of volunteering," Quaintance says. In some cases, volunteers' demand for flexibility and control has been hard for nonprofits to accept. Some agencies are accustomed to recruiting volunteers who go where they are directed and do what they're told. "Nonprofits are waking up to the fact that they need to be more flexible," and it can be a difficult adjustment, Quaintance says.

On the Create the Good site, volunteers can access local volunteer needs by ZIP code and see these needs broken down into several categories: Show-Up, DIY (Do It Yourself), Online, and what it calls "5 Minute" opportunities that may be nonrecurring, relatively quick ways that people can help.

In terms of skills-based volunteering, Quaintance says, one of the things that gets in the way is the difficulty of fitting such offers of help into the way nonprofits traditionally have done things. "It's less about finding the people than having the nonprofit being receptive."

"The strategic and smart nonprofits have figured out how volunteers can be a critical part of their solution," Corvington says. Aside from helping agencies fulfill their missions, such volunteers often are influential in their local communities. "They can be an echo chamber in the community for those nonprofits," he says, raising awareness and support. Here is a list of volunteering opportunities that might be of interest:

Preparing income taxes. The AARP Tax Aide program has more than 34,000 volunteers throughout the country who donate their time and expertise to help people with their taxes. It is a major example of "skills-based" volunteering, which is growing.

Road, waterway clean-ups. If it's green, people want to help. Weekend clean-up campaigns are great opportunities for people to improve their communities, meet like-minded neighbors, and get outside for some exercise. These activities also meet volunteers' growing interest in flexible and even one-shot volunteer opportunities. If you need an excuse, Earth Day is April 22. Helping the helpers. During the recession, nonprofits have seen funding decline even as demand for their services soars. Skills-based volunteers are increasingly filling key roles at agencies that had been performed by full-time staffers. Applying for benefits. The steep recession has led to record increases in food and other assistance programs. Often, people need help in applying for benefits, to make sure they qualify and obtain benefits promptly. Helping kids at school. Just about anything that has to do with children is high on the list of desired activities, ranging from reading to younger children, tutoring, helping coach sports teams, and assisting with a wide range of extracurricular enrichment programs. There are many other school-based volunteer opportunities, and the need will grow this fall because of widespread school funding cutbacks throughout the country. Helping kids at home. The recession has put tremendous stress on families across the country, forcing all adults in a household to seek work and creating rising demand for home-based caregivers and after-school support programs. Repairing safety nets. From assisting food banks to driving people to healthcare clinics, there is plenty of help needed. Cash-strapped governments and social-service support programs badly need volunteers to help meet a range of human needs. Live the dream. There are loads of opportunities to volunteer in activities you've always wanted to try: working with animals, being a docent or tour guide, helping arts organizations, and the like. Someone needs and will appreciate having the benefit of your skills. National and state parks. Parks often take an early hit when budgets are cut. The government regularly seeks volunteers to clean and even help manage the under-staffed and under-funded National Park Service. Go to http://www.volunteer.gov/gov/ to see if there are opportunities for you. When disaster hits. The earthquake in Haiti produced a tremendous volunteer response. Closer to home, Americans step up when their neighbors are hurting. Recent weather volatility has produced unusually severe storm damage across the country, and a related increase in volunteer activity.