Older workers bring new purpose to volunteer work

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By Dave Carpenter

CHICAGO —

Stuffing envelopes is out and meaningful work experience is in for a new generation of volunteers.

Spurred by the tight job market or often career-change aspirations, older workers with specific goals for donating their time are remaking the face of volunteerism. Call it giving back with an agenda.

Executives at nonprofit organizations around the country testify to the new worker demands, many of them from baby boomers used to pushing for what they want. The execs are hardly complaining — volunteerism is on the rise and it’s the older population that’s behind it.

A million and a half more volunteers helped out at a school or hospital or otherwise served their communities at least once during the one-year period ended last September, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The total of 63.4 million included a 4.2 percent jump among those age 45 and over, compared with just 0.7 percent among younger volunteers.

Some of the influx is from unemployed job seekers looking to keep their resumes current. Many are “bridgers” — workers from for-profit companies who are volunteering their free time because they would like to move into the nonprofit sector as they phase into retirement. Still others are full-time retirees among the 9 million volunteers age 65 and over.

But nonprofits say it’s boomers, now ranging from age 45 to 64, who are driving the trend of looking for meaningful volunteer opportunities as they near retirement. That’s a big change from earlier generations, whose volunteers, many of them women without jobs, typically haven’t arrived with specific demands.

“The traditionalists just want to volunteer — you can put them wherever you need them,” said Sherry Iversen, manager of volunteer services at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “Baby boomers know what they want to do and will only volunteer in that capacity.”

Instead of mailing letters or doing basic office or administrative work, boomer volunteers at nonprofits are serving on boards, identifying new clients, helping with marketing and fundraising and even taking on management roles.

“We’re not talking about June Cleaver from the ’50s,” said Kathy Hayes, volunteer coordinator at the Courage Center in Minneapolis, a rehabilitation center for the disabled. “This is a whole new batch of volunteers. They have tremendous skills and they want to use them.”

Susan Doyle of Oak Park, Ill., was looking to make more of an impact on her community with her business and management skills after operating her own coffee shops for years. So last summer she got involved in volunteering through Mather LifeWays, a nonprofit organization based in nearby Evanston, as a way to explore career opportunities involving working with seniors.

“I was looking at it as a steppingstone to what I would do next,” she said. “A lot of volunteers do this now.”

Now, besides running her business, she spends five to 10 hours a week on a project called Wisdom Works, comprised of volunteers over age 50. Together they are working to expand the Grandfamilies Program of Chicago, a nonprofit that helps grandparents who are raising grandchildren.

Thanks to a grant made available through the National Council on the Aging, which oversees Wisdom Works projects nationwide, she gets a $5,000 stipend for her role as a facilitator. But the stipend isn’t why she volunteers. She’s enjoying the creative, entrepreneurial aspects of her work, which involves recruiting and project management, as well as the chance to do some good through a nonprofit.

Formerly a registered nurse, Doyle said: “It’s very satisfying getting back into that area of helping people in the community who need someplace to turn to.” Even in her 60s, she added, “I don’t see any reason why I can’t change careers at this age.”

Volunteers are increasingly asking about stipends in a turbulent economy, according to Dawn Lehman, director of education for Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging, who conducted a recent study on volunteering. But nonprofits often cannot afford to provide payment. Instead, they may sometimes recognize volunteers with gift cards or lifelong learning opportunities that don’t cost the organizations anything.

Deb Swanson, 53, a trust associate at a large Minneapolis bank, began volunteering as a ski instructor at the Courage Center nearly a decade ago. Since then she has taken on event planning and advisory and other duties totaling about 25 hours a month.

She finds it all so rewarding she has entertained the thought of moving on from her successful banking career and taking a full-time paid position there, even though nonprofits don’t pay well.

“When I can help a student be out of their wheelchair for three hours a week, be on a chairlift, be out skiing on the slopes and tell their buddies at school ‘It was so cool!’ that is very affirming for me.” — AP