Changes in Volunteerism in the Information Revolution

Changes in Volunteerism in the Information Revolution

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Changes in Volunteerism in the Information Revolution

Non-profit organizations that use the help of volunteers are being faced with new challenges in recruiting and retaining the new generation of volunteers. Certainly as the years pass, the interest of the volunteers’ changes in how they wish, or in what ways they can donate of themselves. When the American Red Cross was in its beginnings from before the turn of the century to the 1920’s, its primary focus was disaster relief. By the time of World War II (Dulles), dozens of new services provided by volunteers had been added to the original responsibilities. Today as in the past, our society approaches a new age and a new generation whose interest in volunteerism must be exploited by volunteer organizations if they wish to survive this change and continue to provide service to people in need. This paper explores the possible reasons for this change at it analyzes the idea that the new baby boomer generation of retired (or nearly so) volunteers and the Generation X and Y volunteers (who are now of working age) want to help in a different way by using of their specialized skills. The new volunteers want to volunteer on their own time—perhaps even at their home on the computer. Many would be volunteers have not joined because they have not been told their specialized skill could be greatly used on projects to help people in need.

Organizations are just realizing the untapped potential in many of its volunteers. They are realizing that “volunteer” does not mean “amateur.” In fact, according to the Volunteer 2000 Study by the American Red Cross, management expert Peter F. Drucker recently observed that more and more organizations are selecting, training, and managing volunteers as “unpaid staff” rather than as “well meaning amateurs.” Consider the electrician who spends some weekends working without pay at a project to rehabilitate housing for the homeless. Or the computer literacy teacher that trains paid staff how to build a web page. These volunteers are professionals volunteering in their professional expertise—they are not amateurs. These volunteers add value and strength to the organization to complete its mission.

Taking into account that changes may not be good for all volunteer organizations, new opportunities are available for people to help in the information age as never before.

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The biggest challenge is really when the organizations will implement community service programs where people can volunteer from their home or at night. However, organizations that do not offer programs that are better tailored to certain segments of the population to assist them will be left without those volunteers. One example of the kind of volunteerism that will be left out would be blood drives because they take place on weekdays during business hours and many cant get the time off of work. Or soup kitchens because they also hold regular hours where most of the target group (working age) is on the job.

These kind of situations just mentioned are most endemic of citizens in the major cities with high density and traffic and not so felt in rural parts of the country. A case in point would be the Los Angeles metro area (which includes Simi Valley to Orange County and Riverside)—an area well known for its traffic and high density. People that work full time are hard pressed to find the time to volunteer (Rezende) with both spouses working and commuting in freeways to work. Many would-be volunteers have young children they must take to and from school or the day care center around working hours. Unfortunately, many volunteer organizations find it difficult to assign tasks to volunteers whose work and family schedules conflict with the operating hours of the organization. Many organizations are missing out on the new volunteerism of the 21st century. As Herta Loeser states in her book, Women, Work, and Volunteering, there are thousands of working women who volunteer time in the evening and on the weekends.

An example where an organization is taking advantage of the new volunteerism in the 21st century is at (Basheda) the Volunteer Center of Orange County. It is launching a new data-base called Point-Reach to track the involvement of individuals in volunteerism in the county. Point-Reach will also be used as a one-stop web resource for prospective volunteers to perform an organizational match and figure out which organization they wish to volunteer at. For the Volunteer Center of Orange County, the managing of this information will be a large task. Volunteers could have a substantial role in the handling of the data-base. Depending on the success of Point-Reach, California’s 39 other Volunteer Centers located throughout the state will follow suit with the program. The success for this program is very much anticipated because volunteer centers across the country are considering the program themselves. They are watching Orange County as a test bed for the program. Programs like Point-Reach are an excellent example of the changes that are coming in this new millennium for volunteers. Now, in Orange County, volunteers will have the capacity to help the Volunteer Center in the processing of the data generated by Point-Reach.

At an American Red Cross volunteer conference (Summit of Volunteers) held in San Francisco in June of 2000, several keynote speakers addressed the conference of several hundred Red Cross employees and volunteer staff from across the country. The one of the general messages of the conference was to explore and talk about new ways to involve volunteers and understand the needs and wants of the 21st century volunteer.

Keynote speaker Norm Augustine, Chairman of the American Red Cross Board of Governors, said that volunteers can help in new ways like web site administration and design, data base construction, teaching seniors computer literacy, and help in other high tech related ways. He believes that because of this a volunteer can give many good hours of volunteerism at any hour of the day or night. On the same token he said that there should be no minimum hours for somebody to volunteer. Historically when somebody volunteered, is was at the site for blocks of 3 or more hours. Today’s volunteer may not have large blocks of time to give, but can do several small tasks instead. Programs like Point-Reach by the Volunteer Center in Orange County could benefit greatly from just such volunteers.

The recruitment of volunteers that last by agencies is perhaps the most complicated aspect of effective recruitment. What is the point in spending money and resources in recruiting volunteers if they won’t stay in the program? This is where organizations must conduct effective organizational matches (Loeser). Organizations that recruit volunteers should take as much care in selecting the right volunteer as they do in selecting a paid staff member. At the Summit of Volunteerism, keynote speaker and author Nora Silver, Ph.D. who directs the Volunteerism Project, and has given direction to programs of the United Way and the AmeriCorps nation-wide, said that organizations must find the given talents and skills of volunteers and match them to what is needed in the community. In short, if the volunteer is not interested, they won’t last.

In the spirit of Dr. Silver’s views on finding the right volunteers, a prospective volunteer may have the urge to (Basheda) volunteer late in the night but not have the time to follow through. Perhaps the volunteer holds odd hours and may not have the time to search for an organization during the day. With Point-Reach, people can look up volunteer opportunities that interest them in their community around the clock. An added benefit is they commit to a job before they lose interest.

Perhaps organizations should look more closely at the general characteristics of the different generations in the public and attempt to understand what it is that makes each generation ‘tick’. What motivates them? What turns them off? Keynote speaker of the Summit of Volunteerism Sandra Hughes, who is acting Senior Governance Consultant and Executive Advisor to the President at the National Center for Nonprofit Boards in Washington D.C., made the point that there are new people that can volunteer in new ways in the community. Volunteer agencies just need to understand them. She showed the conference a matrix that specifies certain characteristics of five existing generations. At issue were the Baby Boomer Generation, Generation X and the Baby Boomlets a.k.a. Millenials or Generation Y (born after 1979).

To begin with, the experience and history of each of these three generations is very different from each other. The Baby Boomers’ experiences include prosperity, large size, and a responsive marketplace and public. Their key motivators, according to Sandra Hughes, are respect and success. The Baby Boomers possess a value system of high social conscience and self interest (do good and do well). The Baby Boomers generally believe that one is what one does. They view work as part of self-identity and they see credentials with high importance. They are willing to give hard work for institutions they feel appreciated by and want to be involved in the decision-making. Baby Boomers are also questioning and soul-searching.

There occurs a dramatic shift with the Generation X volunteers. Their experiences include prosperity and smaller size. They understand high technology. They are in competition with the Baby Boomers’ resources. They have a negative view of the world around them with AIDS and civil unrest (riots). They grew up with escalating crime and media violence in an age of diminishing expectations. 40% of Generation X are products of divorce. The key motivators identified by Sandra Hughes of Generation X are that whatever they do, it should be an enjoyable experience and that it shouldhave many options and freedoms. Generation X has a value system that is self indulgent, not involved with issues, and they believe that how time is spent is more important than what is being done. Perhaps because of their parents or grandparents history with HMO’s or company lay-offs, Generation X believes in a sense of entitlement with little loyalty to institutions. Like their parents the Baby Boomers, Generation X is also questioning and soul searching, but is more cynical about it.

Acording to Sandra Hughes, again there is a noticeable shift in characteristics when Generation Y (born after 1979) is looked at. Their experiences include uncertain prospects. They are larger in number than Generation X and have an active relationship with their grandparents. Generation Y is high tech and also latchkey with two income families. The key motivators of this generation are instant gratification and team play. They value a new civic community, are more focused on science, math, economics and politics (unlike Generation X). They possess a high social self-confidence and are distrustful of government, health care and the media, but are more determined than the previous generations to become active and change things.

Understanding who the volunteers are and learning more about them, helps organizations (Volunteer 2000 Study) to work better with the ones they have and to recruit more effectively from the population. This makes the organizations more effective in the money they spend on recruitment and retention of volunteers. The myth that volunteers are free is not true. According to the Volunteer 2000 Study conducted by the American Red Cross, some of the costs associated with volunteers may include the salaries of their paid counterparts, the recruitment, placement, training, supervision and the tracking of the volunteers’ hours.

Other costs associated with volunteers include providing the logistical support like workspace, supplies, information, a telephone, staff assistance, and identification. Organizations also invest in their volunteers by providing opportunities for them to grow beyond their immediate job requirements into both technical and interpersonal skills.

Recognition of the volunteers and thanking them for their contributions to an organization by holding social functions and giving awards are events that also require time and money. When an organization understands that volunteers contribute more than meets the eye, it willingly shoulders the costs of volunteer involvement. These costs underscore why it is so important that volunteer organizations know who their volunteers are and that they understand their needs. With these factors it becomes apparent that running an organization with volunteers is definitely not cheap.

In 1923 when the American Red Cross was relatively still in its infancy, it did however have growing pains of its own. The second president at the time (Miss Clara Barton was the first until 1923), Miss Boardman, did not believe that the organization should stray away from being an organization for war and disaster relief (Dulles). She had hostility toward the professional social workers whom she felt were trying to win complete control of the organization. Then as many organizations now, Miss Boardman did not see the changing times and the need for the Red Cross to grow from its beginnings. If she had a better understanding of the experiences and values of the new volunteers, then she would have been ready to accept the change more gracefully. Nowadays, organizations on the vanguard learned from the mistakes of others that if you don’t change with the times, you’ll be left behind. This is why it is so important that organizations understand who the generations are and what they stand for to better connect them to their function in the community.

As for the Red Cross, the following is an example of changing with the times. In the 1930’s the organization consolidated many services into a program in the local chapters called Voluntary Special Services (Dulles), where apart from war and disaster services, they got involved in services for veterans and their families, social welfare and public health, first-aid promotion, water safety, Junior Red Cross, and other varied projects. This growth changed the American Red Cross permanently and included more interests in helping people other than during disasters. The organization could focus on prevention and education, which in turn have a positive effect on people during a disaster.

Fifty years later, volunteers at several organizations answered the call of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s. Organizations sprung into action to deliver food to people who were too sick to leave their homes. The American Red Cross, like other organizations recruited volunteers to educate people on AIDS and its prevention. This is yet of another example in the past when volunteer organizations needed people to help do much needed new tasks.

As in the past, recruiting volunteers for new tasks is much of what is happening today. Today’s new tasks for volunteers include understanding high technological software and hardware applications, or preparing disaster shelters and evacuation plans for new global man-made threats like chemical spills and weapons of mass destruction attacks from foreign or domestic foes.

Organizations must understand that volunteers contribute to more than meets the eye (Volunteer 2000 Study). Volunteers extend an organization’s capacity to deliver services. They provide the image and credibility that allow an organization to ask for money and other contributions (Poppendieck). Volunteers also help open doors to particular segments of the community that may not be represented in the staff or the board of directors that govern the organization.

Volunteer organizations that help people will need to meet the challenge of the new millennium. This begins with the understanding that (Chitty) volunteerism is a business imperative for the non profit organizations. Once this is done, as this research paper has indicated, the next task is to learn about the volunteers and tailor the activities of the organization to them. This is a natural progression of the times as indicated here when organizations like the American Red Cross go through changes. The reasons for the changes are many as was noted in the differences in values between the generations. Nevertheless, people that care are the reason such organizations exist and continue to do so. People want to help, they only wish to know how.

Works Cited

Author, Unknown. Volunteer Center. Online. Available:

Author, Unknown. Volunteer Match. Online. Available:

Basheda, Lori. “Volunteering with the click of a mouse.” Orange County Register 14 May 2001, Sec A: 1, 4.

Chitty, George: CEO American Red Cross Orange County Chapter. (July 2000) Quote taken from National American Red Cross web page:

Dulles, Foster R. The American Red Cross. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1950.

Loeser, Herta. Women, Work, and Volunteering. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1974.

Poppendieck, Janet. Sweet Charity? New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998

Rezende, Jeffrey: Volunteer Recruitment Coordinator for Orange County Chapter. Observations in this paper made in course of daily duties in the position from 1999 to 2001.

Summit on Volunteers. San Francisco, CA: National American Red Cross, July 2000

Schindler-Rainman, Eva and Lippitt, Ronald. The Volunteer Community: Creative use of Human Resources. Washington D.C.: NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science, 1971.

Taking Volunteerism into the 21st Century. Lorton, VA: National American Red Cross, n.d.
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