Managing an Aging Volunteer Population

Posted on May 9, 2018

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By Robin Shapiro

Event work is tough! Lifting cases of water, putting up pop-ups, long hours on your feet―often in direct sunlight or pouring rain―can take its toll on your event staff and volunteers alike.

If you are like us, you have loyal volunteers who have served with you for many years. And while their physical capabilities might have diminished some over the years, their knowledge of the event and commitment to the cause are just as strong (if not stronger) than the day they first offered their help. It would be unfortunate to lose these volunteers and raving fans of your mission because the physical requirements have become too much.

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we can fill in the physical gap while still retaining our loyal volunteers. Here’s a list of ideas we know can accomplish that goal:

  • Reorganize your volunteer structure: Before you open your volunteer opportunities to the public, gather a group of your key, veteran volunteers and ask for their input on how they would like to serve on your event. Find out what tasks they are (and are not) comfortable performing. Empower these veteran volunteers to create their own role and let them design their experience.

    If you take their feedback and create volunteer positions that will specifically meet the needs and requests of these veteran volunteers, they will stay engaged, continually challenged, and be ready to come back year after year.

    Then once you place your veteran volunteers, you can evaluate what jobs still need to be performed and begin targeted recruitment to find groups and or individuals who can fulfill these responsibilities.
  • Provide clear and specific volunteer job descriptions: Spell out specific and realistic physical requirements and tasks in your job descriptions, such as, “must be able to lift 40-pound ice bags repeatedly for 3–4 hours.” This way prospective volunteers will know what to expect and will not be surprised and frustrated by job requirements. If you have a volunteer captain, ask them to follow-up and make sure the volunteers feel comfortable with the designated requirements.
  • Create a SWAT team to fill in the gaps: Use a group of physically-capable volunteers to perform most of the set-up and break-down work. This team can also work in rotations, giving regular breaks to volunteers staffing each of the event areas.

    A good rule of thumb is that you should allow at least 10 minutes for a break for every two hours volunteering, and be sure to share this information upfront. Encourage all of your volunteers to let you know if/when they need to take more frequent breaks than what you’ve scheduled, and have a plan to cover the shift right way. This way, no one feels overworked and understaffed.
  • Create an inclusive team: Cultivate a work environment where everyone feels welcome and valued, no matter their age, experience, physical capability or longevity with the event. Consider breaking up existing teams of people and asking veteran volunteers to mentor new volunteers to show them the ropes.
  • Place the right leaders in the right spots: Remember that a leader or captain can make or break a volunteer experience. Train your volunteer leaders to be empathetic and observant of the needs and capabilities of the volunteers they’ll be working with. Make sure they’ll be willing to take the time to repeat instructions, schedule more frequent breaks, reorganize responsibilities, pair up volunteers who seem lost, etc.
  • Find the muscles: If you have trouble recruiting physically-capable volunteers, create an incentive for veteran volunteers to bring a niece, nephew, grandchild, etc. to help carry the load. We’ve also found that targeted recruitment of fraternities, sororities, high school athletic teams and clubs, and ROTC has been helpful in filling in the physical gap.

While it’s inevitable that your volunteer population will age, it’s still important to retain these veterans for their knowledge and passion for the cause. These volunteers could be the ones who drive your event forward as they lay the foundation for future generations of volunteers.

Do you have ideas to add to this list? Email us!


As Manager of Volunteer Operations for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day®, Robin gets to combine her love of volunteerism and leadership development with endurance events. She currently volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters, Girls on the Run, and the American Youth Literacy Foundation.


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