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Local volunteer organizations are looking at different ways of engaging young help

WILLMAR -- From her one-person office in Willmar, Marge Hanson covers a wide territory directing and coordinating Girl Scout programs in the region. She's supported by the Girl Scout organization but also relies heavily on volunteers.

Finding -- and keeping -- good volunteers is usually somewhere near the top of her priority list.

"How do I utilize their experiences, their knowledge and their enthusiasm?" she wondered.

It's a question many volunteer-driven organizations are asking themselves these days.

As an older generation of volunteers makes way for a new crop of baby boomers and Generation X'ers, organizations must ready themselves for the needs and expectations of this new generation of volunteers, say those who work in the volunteer field.

"This isn't just about boomers. Boomers are the leading edge of change," said Colleen Fritsch, director of volunteer resources at DARTS of Dakota County. "We need to change with that in order to attract those skills and those abilities of new generations."

Fritsch helped lead a day-long volunteer development workshop Tuesday in Willmar for the Southwest/West Central Volunteer Connections, a consortium of about two dozen regional organizations that rely on volunteers.

For the 20-some people who attended, it was a chance to learn more about what makes upcoming generations different from their parents and grandparents and how to successfully engage them in volunteerism.

One of the lessons: What worked in the past won't necessarily work with boomers, Gen-X or the millennial generation. These younger generations want flexibility and they want to contribute in ways that have an impact, Fritsch said.

The boomer generation alone contains 37 million volunteers who donate an average of 12 hours a month worth an estimated $100 billion, she said.

"Now is our time to capture that potential. That's an opportunity for us," Fritsch said.

For volunteer organizations, it will mean getting more creative. For one thing, these younger volunteers want flexible schedules and commitments, said workshop co-leader Janene Riedeman, director of volunteer services at St. Cloud Hospital.

This might entail developing short-term projects, or creating job-sharing or telecommuting volunteer opportunities, she said.

Educated and affluent, the boomers bring many skills and life experiences that can benefit the organizations for which they volunteer -- but many of them might also prefer to try something completely new, Riedeman said.

For that reason, interviews will be important in figuring out the best way a volunteer can contribute, she said.

"It might be a chain of conversations over many different dates before you find a fit for that volunteer or the volunteer is ready to come into your organization," Riedeman said.

Even communication methods -- e-mail and Facebook vs. phone calls -- will need to be adapted if organizations are to successfully engage volunteers from the boomer generation and beyond, she and Fritsch said.

Local organizations are already trying to reshape themselves in response to the changing volunteer landscape.

When Kim Mattson of the regional office of the American Cancer Society needed someone to coordinate a daffodil sale in Spicer, she turned it over to a volunteer. The volunteer put together a schedule, rounded up workers, organized a successful event and is already planning for next year's daffodil sale, Mattson said.

"Giving them that power and letting them make those decisions has been beneficial," she said.

It's becoming increasingly important for volunteers to understand how they fit into an organization's mission and to know they're making a difference, Riedeman said.

"They need to know the big picture," she said. "Volunteering must thrill them, inspire them and make them want to come to work as volunteers."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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