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Pro Bono Boomers

2012-05-01, Feature, by Maureen Hannan

John Bissell offers pro bono consulting to a Washington-area nonprofitJohn Bissell is a marketing strategist with a long and growing waiting list of organizations who’ve heard of his reputation for polished work and bottom-line results. He captures the details of each fresh project with a precision honed by decades of experience—and with the enjoyment of one who has always loved his work. Every client offers a new puzzle to solve, a set of unique challenges to conquer, and a chance to spread a message and engage new supporters.
When Bissell finishes the careful work of crafting a comprehensive new marketing strategy, he picks up the phone. “Done,” he says matter-of-factly. And then, “Send me the next one, please.”

Bissell is not an account executive with a blue-chip marketing firm—though he used to be. He is a volunteer, eager to share expertise and energy with local causes he believes in. And when he calls for the next assignment, his point of contact is Laura Toscano, a specialist in skills-based volunteering for HandsOn Greater DC Cares, a nonprofit agency that matches volunteers with needs in the Washington, D.C. area.

Bissell, like millions of his Boomer peers, approaches volunteering as an extension of his professional life—a means of giving back to the community while sharing and sharpening a hard-earned skill set. Even as older adults redefine traditional notions of retirement—working longer and often transitioning to “encore careers”—volunteerism is rising among those 50 and older. It is not, however, the same brand of volunteerism senior centers have seen in the past: Tasks like stuffing envelopes, knitting clothes, delivering meals, or staffing reception areas satisfied the needs of retirees who wished mainly to socialize while serving. The social aspects of volunteering still matter. However, in the effort to engage and retain Boomer volunteers, many program directors are changing their focus to accommodate a more individualized, vocational style of giving back.

The Power of Pro Bono  

Boomers are the best-educated generation in American history to hit their 50s. Twenty-eight percent hold a bachelor’s degree, and 45 million of them boast at least some college education. And millions have spent their adult lives mastering and building a business in a trade or craft. Not only do those between 50 and 65 represent a wealth of educational and business achievements—their careers have spanned technological changes more rapid and sweeping than for any generation before them. It’s not surprising that this generation of skilled, well educated workers seeks opportunities to make a difference through their professional skills or through their ability to learn brand-new skills.

Through the Los Angeles Retired Seniors Volunteer Program (RSVP), a federal Senior Corps program that ran until this year under L.A.’s Department of Recreation and Parks, volunteers over 55 offer local nonprofit partners their time and professionals skills. Kevin Regan, assistant general manager for the department, says the program has met three basic needs for the volunteers: “wanting to stay relevant, wanting to connect socially, and wanting to make an impact.” Olu Hawes, who has supervised the program, emphasizes that the community benefits greatly from all of the labor the volunteers donate (in exchange for a small transportation stipend). The retired volunteers, for their part, “get fulfillment and gratification from the work—and their minds and bodies stay fresh.”

“You give back—you make a difference,” Hawes says. “It’s a big city, and there’s a lot of isolation.” Connecting retired or semi-retired volunteers with stimulating nonprofit assignments helps break down those walls of isolation.

The Other Side of Lifelong Learning 

“Everyone here is interested in continuing to learn—and curious about things,” says Susan Hoskins, director of the Princeton Senior Resources Center (PSRC) in New Jersey. Indeed, surveys like the 2012 Consumer Federation Southeast poll show 50 percent of those over 50 listing access to lifelong learning opportunities as a deciding factor in their choice of community. Hoskins notes that both personal enrichment and the ability to upgrade the career skills take high priority for older residents in her area. The 400 participants in PSRC’s Evergreen Forum, a lifelong learning program with classrooms throughout the community, study subjects as diverse as Shakespeare’s plays, Islam, and modern Chinese history.

Those teaching the courses are volunteers—fellow PSRC participants who stepped forward to teach according to their interests and knowledge base. Similarly, those volunteers who lead PSRC’s “Engaged Retirement” classes teach their peers financial planning, job search strategies, and strategic volunteerism to prepare for encore careers.

Jody Jameson, senior center supervisor for the Town of Cary (North Carolina) parks and recreation department, describes a similar synergy—where Boomers’ thirst for learning unites with desires also to teach. And, like Princeton, Cary’s proximity to outstanding universities attracts many with an academic bent. However, Jameson is quick to point out, over-55 volunteer teachers also fill important roles in non-academic areas such as fitness instruction. Jameson explains that she and her staff believe it is important to make fitness a class activity—to make it social so that, unlike a solitary gym workout, participants know they will be missed if they don’t show up to exercise. In Cary, where nearly 20 percent of the population is over 55, Jameson adds, “they really don’t want to have 20-year-olds teaching senior fitness.”

Personal-interest classes also constitute an important part of Cary’s lifelong education offerings, says Jameson. And when a participant at the center steps forward offering to teach a subject that flows from a personal passion, it often ignites others’ interest. “One woman started offering classes in Feng Shui. She’s just all about it and wants everyone to understand it.” And still another Boomer volunteer teaches informally by giving talks about his years of work for NASA. “Just sharing what they’ve experienced can mean more than anything else,” Jameson says.,

Hoskins notes that seminars relating to healthy aging also tend to be popular. And when older volunteers lead those types of classes, they offer much more than the reassurance of peer support. “It’s important to keep the tone positive. To focus on, ‘here’s how to eat nutritiously,’ for example—and not on, ‘here are the bad things that can happen as you age,’” Hoskins says. And the Boomer volunteers she works with understand on an instinctive level the importance of empowerment when addressing age-related topics.

Intergenerational Impact 

Ask a group of senior center directors how intergenerational mentoring takes place in their communities, and you will hear many different answers. Sometimes it happens informally, through opportunities for kids and older adults simply to spend time working in a community garden or playing games. In other instances, children benefit from structured, school-based programs where adults of all ages spend time reading with them or providing other kinds of academic enrichment and support.

No matter what the context or level of formality, all senior center directors interviewed said their participants desire opportunities to teach and mentor younger people. In practice, though, intergenerational outreach can be challenging—particularly in suburban communities where children and teenagers maintain structured after-school schedules. Furthermore, kids and parents may be more comfortable seeing youth serve (rather than be served by) older community members.

In cities like Los Angeles, where many children are at risk for gang involvement, the need for mentors and role models is overwhelming. Even so, says assistant manager Kevin Regan, the kids most vulnerable to gang recruitment will often tune out adults who try to help them. His colleague, Olu Hawes, observes that those over 50 have better success than younger adults in reaching the city’s at-risk youth: “The kids listen to the older people. Especially if they’ve come up in the same neighborhoods and been through some of the same things.” 

And the lessons those mentors teach—whether as simple as personal hygiene basics or as complex as job interview skills—can open doors of opportunity for a community’s most vulnerable members.

The Rules of Engagement 

Boomers may be eager to volunteer for nonprofits, reach out across generations, and teach their peers, but they also want to be engaged in a way that feels personal. “A bulletin board with volunteer opportunity postings probably isn’t going to work well,” says Charlottesville’s Peter Thompson. “It takes dedicated staff and resources to help Boomers change the world.” 

Hoskins’s experiences have led her to similar conclusions, and as a result she and her staff now stress skills-based volunteering. [See accompanying interview with HandsOn Greater DC Cares skills-based volunteering manager Laura Toscano for a fuller discussion of that approach.] Hoskins also recommends forming relationships with volunteers through short-term, carefully outlined skills-based opportunities. A typical description, she says, would go something like this: “I have a graphic design job. It should take 5 hours. The skills I need are graphic design and desktop publishing. You are saving this organization $500 by doing it.

“When a person looks at that as an opportunity, they say, sure, I’ve got five hours. I’ve got those skills. That’s very different from saying, ‘Would you like to be a volunteer for our organization? We’ll need you every week from now until eternity and we don’t know exactly what we’re going to need you from week to week. And we’re really going to be dependent on you, so you’ll feel bad if you go on a three-week vacation.’”

“It’s a different way of approaching volunteering,” Hoskins concludes. “We need to redefine what we’re asking so that we can make matches.”

Maureen Hannanis Senior Editor of Parks & Recreation.


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I see these things happening at the Senior Center In Westerville, Ohio.