Among the many lessons I have learned while leading a nonprofit over the past 10 years is that generational differences in work and volunteer groups foster a unique dynamic. On one hand, the similarities amongst the individuals involved create a synergy which can lead to incredible outcomes. On the other hand, the differences and variations in thoughts related to careers, authority, and values can cultivate challenges for these same groups. Thankfully, volunteer-based organizations have found inventive ways to encourage participation of various age groups towards a noble cause through a powerful tool - mission-based work that appeals to the former hippies and the current hipsters.
The appeal of volunteer groups to millennials is deeply embedded into some of their core values. First, research suggests millennials are extremely socially conscious. This strong social consciousness provides vigilance towards the greater good -volunteer groups' bread and butter. What's more is that these young men and women feel a personal responsibility to make a difference - thus a compelling reason to personally volunteer.
A recent Cone Inc. report suggests that millennials are the "very definition of Pro-Social" based on a burning desire to positively affect the world in which they live. Particularly as a group competing with baby boomers in the workplace, this can be difficult for millennials to find in corporate America. That's not to say that millennials are entirely disconnected from white collars - how else would they pay off record national student loan debt? However, if they have enough free time to volunteer for a cause they believe in - such as climate change or the environment - then that burning desire starts to feel like warm fulfillment.
That's only one half of the equation though. We also have this other group of 80 million people who are well known for their activism in the human rights and anti-Vietnam War era of the late 1960's/early 1970's - baby boomers. Let's not forget that these experienced folks are familiar with making a difference in ways that millennials are currently seeking. Boomers' ability to bring about lasting social and cultural change is one that is irrefutable. Baby boomers' wisdom and experience is a major asset for those organizations who are lucky enough to have them as part of the team. These career and achievement-driven individuals are masters of their domain and have an almost unquenchable thirst for success. In other words, you want these hippies on your side, man!
Living, working, and volunteering in a setting in which two distinctive generational groups are participating creates a unique dynamic. This dynamic can lend itself well to organizational diversity, productivity, and meeting mission-driven goals. The key is to tap into each generation's values and priorities. Luckily for domestic volunteer organizations there is an intrinsic appeal to the two largest generational groups in the U.S. However, providing a synergistic landscape for both boomers and millennials to thrive in requires specific charm.
Proper acclimation and empowerment of millennials in the volunteer space begins on a micro level. The real magic happens when micro-level efforts provide traction for oomers to enact macro change. The U.S. Census Bureau's affinity group project is a great example of empowerment of millennials and its effect on the overall organization. Using the EPA's Emerging Leaders Network as a blueprint, the U.S. Census Bureau provided millennials a forum to lend their opinions, experiences, and exposure to the latest social trends with the use of affinity groups. With the support of Boomer leadership within the Bureau (including then Director Robert Groves), millennials were able to form the NextGen Network. The Network serves as an outlet for millennials to gain visibility in front of senior leadership, mingle with various generational groups to gain broader perspective, and provide their socially conscious input on meaningful projects. The participation of millennials and boomers is strictly voluntary which yields participants with positive intent.
In another example, the Society of Certified Senior Advisors has shown that the benefit of volunteering with millennials also has benefits for boomers and surrounding communities. First, baby boomers can learn a great deal regarding technology and socially important viewpoints of their younger counterparts. The impending result is that boomers evolve and understand relevant concepts in the ever-changing world they inhabit. Not only that, but boomers are called on to lend their experiences and skills to younger people which can benefit communities as a whole in making them well-rounded and vigilant of historical context.
I have also been happy to be a witness to this generational cohabitation within my own organization. Rock the Earth was founded on an essential element that transcends generational disparities - music (specifically, live music). For years, we have been forming partnerships with a diverse lineup of musical acts that are eager to unite on an environmentally conscious mission. Baby boomers (lawyers, scientists, public relations experts, etc.) lay the groundwork by commencing advocacy work on pressing environmental issues. millennials then are able to pick up the ball, massage and disseminate the "call to action" both at concerts and festivals across the United States as well as via online social media outlets (favored by millennials as their preferred news sources) to educate and activate the general public.
In turn, we also enlist the support of a wide variety of musical acts appealing to disparate generations for their help as well. The fact that the organization leverages the passion and expertise of both generations is a testament to the cross-generational appeal of both the mission as well as the carefully chosen musical partners with whom we join in that mission.
Volunteer-based organizations provide millennials (the most socially conscious generation of all time) with a forum to impact society's greater good. These same organizations also appeal to Baby boomers because they possess innate aspirations towards achievement and familiarity with championing social change (i.e. Human Rights Movement). For now, millennials are accepting the social change issues that their parents (often baby boomers) have championed. Certainly, these young folks will continue to develop their own values and aspirations towards change.
The question is what does that change look like? And how will the sharing of life and volunteer experiences from boomers affect the way millennials pass the torch to upcoming generations? Time will undeniably tell us the answer. For now, there is tremendous hope that the synergistic experiences of today will help shape intergenerational volunteer groups of tomorrow.