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Recruiting and Managing the Younger Volunteers
Part I: Why are organizations having a difficult time recruiting Gen Xers?
Part II: Creating a Gen-X friendly volunteer culture

by Thomas W. McKee


Part I: Why are organizations having a difficult time recruiting Gen Xers?

One of the most often questions I am asked about volunteer management is "How can we get the younger generation involved?" This is a problem for most volunteer managers. When interviewing the volunteer manager at Shiner's Hospital, I asked her, "How do you get the younger people to volunteer?" She was quiet for a time and then answered, "We don't, for the most part, except for school internships." Her answer was typical.

However, some organizations are reaching their younger members and getting them involved. How are they doing it? First, they understand that the Gen-Xers are really different. They don't respond to the old recruiting techniques. I have been reading and hearing about the differences, but I questioned them. My reaction was, "I was the same way when I was their age." However, I decided to see for myself what all the hype was about, so I began a very revealing experiment and learned that there are significant differences. If we don't understand these differences, those of us who are baby boomers (born before1964) will never be able to successfully recruit and manage generation X volunteers (born after 1965). But before we look at these differences, a warning is necessary: Any discussion of generations contains generalizations, even some stereotyping. The needs of younger volunteers reflect the needs of all volunteers; however, I have discovered that each demographic group does have some unique features that affect how we recruit, motivate and manage volunteers.

The Experiment

I divided a small workshop, anywhere from 25-50 people, into two groups—the baby boomers and the X-ers. I asked the groups to discuss the question, "What are the differences in the work ethic of the boomers and X-ers?" When I started this experiment about 10 years ago, I used to say, "Everyone under age 28 stay on this side of the room while all of you 29 and older form a group on the other side of the room." Each year the age has changed. In 2004 the first X-ers will reach 40.

After about 15 minutes of discussion, I have the boomers report first. I've listened to these reports for over ten years and they nearly always say the same thing. It most often sounds like this:

X-ers are not committed. They often come late, leave early, and they work on their own time schedule. They show no respect for authority. They don't want to do any more than is expected and will jump ship as soon as a more lucrative offer is on the table. They are much more knowledgeable about hi- tech stuff and keep wanting to change things, but you can't depend on them when you need to get a job done.

Then the X-er stands up to give a report. I had one X-er who gave the following report, which is very typical of the reports I hear.

What you have just said is true. We are exactly what you said because that is the way you brought us up. We watched you work for 70-80 hours a week for the same company for the last 40 years, and then that company dumped you. We watched you divorce each other and leave us home alone while you tried to make a living on your own. We were shuffled from one home to another, and we learned to be independent. We grew up with Presidents that lie (Nixon and Clinton) and company presidents who get rich while the rest of you make money for them. We have learned to look at work as a job to support a life style while you look at work as a career. Don't ask us to work overtime, because we have a life outside of work. Don't expect us to devote our lives to your goals.

When the young man gave that report, the room was quiet. The boomers were looking at each other and finally one woman spoke up and said, "Wow, what an indictment!" I asked if they thought it was true. And everyone agreed that it was pretty much right on.

After listening to these reports for almost a decade, I have come to the following conclusions, which have a great impact on recruiting the Generation X volunteer. Actually, most volunteer organizations are made up of four very specific generations. Each are different because during their younger years their lives were impacted with certain historical events such as the Great Depression, World War II, The View Nam War, government, religious, and business scandals, Columbine and September 11th. Each of these events helped shape the way each generation frames the volunteer organization.

The Radio Babies, often called the Veteran Generation, born prior to 1927, won World War II with a gigantic military organization. They trust the chain of command hierarchical systems to decide what changes to make. They are quick to volunteer and do the tasks that are assigned them.

The TV Babies, called the Baby Boomer, born between 1946-1964, do not trust hierarchical systems. These children of the '60s were taught to challenge the systems. Those of us who are boomers grew up in an age of growth and prosperity. Our parents worked very hard and made sure that we had enough to go to college. In the early 60's we heard President Kennedy say, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." And we did. We volunteered for the Peace Corps and were going to have a great impact on the "Great Society." We actively volunteered to make a difference.

But Viet Nam and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King and Watergate changed that. We turned inward and in the 70's and 80's followed the advice of EST and Self magazine and read best sellers like Looking out for Number 1 as we self actualized. All this time we were raising generation X.

Boomers, however, still volunteer because the "I want to change the world" of the 60's still beats in our hearts. Many have found that living for self has not been the fulfilling life they expected. Recently we have seen a "graying of the peace corps." People in their 50's and 60's are leaving lucrative careers to join the Peace Corps and organizations with a social or spiritual mission. And volunteering is a way to fulfill that passion.

The Computer Babies, called Gen-X, born 1965—1981, experienced a childhood of uncertainty. Many were latchkey kids and grew up in single-parent households. They were raised on video games, TV, MTV, and computers. As they watched corporate downsizing and the demise of career employment, many chose to say, "Not Me." And they reacted with a unique idea, one that the Boomers forgot—that commitment is mutual.

Generation X values competence in the leader who leads an organization or a volunteer team. X-ers do not go along with leadership simply because their supervisor decided it. Some X-ers also have the maddening habit of disregarding the leadership and not telling anyone, or going ahead on their own and not telling anyone.

The Digital Babies – Called the Nexter Generation or Gen Y, born after 1981, have grown up using technology all of their lives. This generation grew up on video games ("twitch speed"), MTV (more than 1000 images a minute), and the ultra-fast speed of action films. They grew up processing information more quickly than any other generation and therefore are much better at it.

The bottom line: we are different.

Many organizations have a difficult time recruiting the younger generation because of denial. I was there. I doubted all the studies and information that the generations are different. But I have learned that I was wrong. The organizations that accept the difference and then apply the following strategies to create a Gen-X friendly culture are having success.

Part II: Creating a Gen X Friendly Volunteer Culture

The expectations of the various generations seem to be changing and X-ers seem to have initiated those changes. The key question for the volunteer manager is "How can we maximize the younger volunteer potential and encourage Generation X and Y to have an active part of our organization?"

In light of these significant differences, volunteer managers can use the following techniques to get younger volunteers.

Recruiting and keeping younger volunteers centers on our volunteer culture. Ask yourself these questions to see if you are Gen-X and Gen-Y friendly?

1. Do we have a fast-paced, technologically up-to-date environment?

The younger volunteers thrive on an environment that is exciting and filled with new challenging projects.

Rick Rusk of California Association of Society Executives has learned to be flexible. In this fast-paced world, he needs to do meetings by e-mail and conference calls. The younger generation is so tech-minded that he has been able to utilize these tools to involve and recruit younger members.

2. Do we have a place for them to learn?

Younger volunteers will respond to opportunities to be involved in an organization that will advance their careers. The one way Shiners' Hospital recruited younger students to volunteer was in their internship programs. They found many effective volunteers in these programs.

The Digital Babies, Generation Y, have patience with training if there is a payoff at the end. The generations that grew up with video games learned that if you put in the hours and master the game, you will be rewarded by moving up to the next level and being placed on the high scorers list. What you put in determines what you get, and what you get is worth the effort you put in.

3. Do we communicate clearly, using a Gen-X and Gen-Y language?

Communication is an issue that baffles some boomers. They throw up their hands when they try to communicate what they consider ordinary ideas to X-ers. For example, when a boomer says to a boomer, "This needs to be done," both understand that's an order, but nicely put. Likewise, when a boomer says to a boomer, "Would you mind?" the anticipated answer is, "No, of course not." However, when a boomer says to a X-er, "This needs to be done," the X-er hears an observation, not an order. Boomers are astounded when they ask an X-er, "Would you mind?" and he/she states quite frankly why he/she would!

Gen X-ers interpret literally. They respond to "non-direct" communication as "non-direct". Gen X-ers love to communicate by e-mail, but boomers make the mistake of communicating "orders" by e-mail. The Gen-X board member does not respond to this message, "Our membership has gone down 5% in the past year. Would you please call the following ten members to see if you can get them to renew their membership?" The Gen-X board member did not sign up to receive commands from their team leader. They signed up to be empowered to make decisions and will act on those decisions. The Gen-X board member will respond to an e-mail that says, "Our membership has gone down 5% in the past year. Let's look for ways to increase our membership next year. Please send me some ideas that you have seen work or think will work for us."

4. Is our management style more laid back?

The Gen X-ers seem to have a more laid back approach to management than the Boomers or Radio Babies. For Gen-X, it's the results that count, not whether one spends 40 hours in the office. Job sharing, flexible hours, and telecommuting are options that X-ers are likely to seek out and support. They have one plea - don't say, "We've always done it this way" to them. Think "options."

5. Is our system of change management 20th Century, or 21st Century?

A national study by American Demographics Magazine reported that 47% of Americans are highly resistant to change. Another 27% of Americans are peace lovers; therefore, they do not actively resist change, but they prefer that no one rock the boat. So who do the 17% side with when someone suggests a change? The vocal 47% that strongly resist change. The result: Expect 64% of the governing board or managers to vote against any new ideas the first time they hear it.

A quick look at the generations demonstrates that the baby boomers and the X generation are the most likely to resist any change decisions that come from the top. And where do most of our volunteers come from? Boomers and X-ers

The Radio Babies Generation won World War II with a gigantic military organization. They trust the chain of command hierarchical systems to decide what changes to make.

The TV Babies--Boomers do not trust hierarchical systems. These children of the '60s were taught to challenge the systems.

The Computer Babies -- Gen X-ers value competence in the leader who decided to make change. X-ers do not go along with a change simply because the board or a supervisor decided it.

The bottom line to decision making is process. Both Boomers and Gen X-ers want to own the decisions and the decision making process; however, they approach their decision making process very differently. X-ers don't want to spend a lot of time discussing problems and brainstorming solutions. Boomers were trained in the old system of project management where they analyzed the problem, tested solutions, and developed plans. Gen-X has computer programs to do all this. They just want to see a need and design a way to fill it. More often they don't want to spend a lot of time discussing it, or working out a strategic plan; they want to just go out and do it. And if they can do it all by e-mail, instead of a meeting, that is all the better.

6. Is our organization flexible so that one size doesn't fit all when it comes to making decisions?

As you're developing options in your organization, consider ways to tailor them to the four generations. Gen-Xers are interested in concierge services and flextime; Boomers are likely to be more interested in long-term care insurance and sabbaticals.

7. And finally, are we ready for Gen-Y?

A new generation entering the volunteer organization: The Digital Babies—or Generation Y. They are beginning to enter the volunteer organizations as the first wave is entering the job market. The first read on this generation is that they are like their great-grandparents—the Radio Babies and often say, "We're not whiners like Generation X - we're doers." And "So the world needs some changes…we're up to the task." This is a technologically talented generation that's ready and eager to make its mark. It will be interesting to see if they live up to their reputation.

The younger-friendly volunteer culture

The younger generation will respond to a volunteer culture that looks like, feels like, and acts like the following:

  • Fun
  • Win/win
  • Efficient
  • Technologically up-to-date
  • Fun
  • Team based
  • A place to learn
  • Fun
  • Empowered—a high level of freedom
  • Cut-to-the-chase decision making
  • Flexible—not one size fits all
  • Fun

    What does all of this mean for you as a volunteer manager? Here are some suggestions for how you can use this information to better manage Gen Xers and maximize their productivity and contributions to your organization:

  • Establish project-driven relationships, not "hugy-feely" relationships with them.
  • Recruit younger volunteers to work on teams with dynamic leaders who will act as mentors, care about them, and demand high performance.
  • Stay in touch, offering constant very specific feedback.
  • Never micromanage.
  • Let them be creative and do things their way.
  • Listen to them express their opinion.
  • Value their new ideas.
  • Be specific about the end results of the project they are working on. Be sure they understand that you are depending on them to meet the deadlines. Establish certain checkpoints during the course of the project.
  • Empower younger volunteers to work at their pace, making their own day-to-day decisions, mistakes and creative solutions. Let them know that you are holding them responsible for the end result.
  • Encourage questions and be generous in sharing information about the organization and the project.
  • Train younger volunteers on skills and competencies that not only help your organization but also are something that interest them. They love win/win contractual relationships. They love to win and be rewarded for the effort that they put in.
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