A New Breed Of Volunteer: Understanding The New Volunteer Culture

Volunteers //

Why are so many churches finding it difficult to recruit workers while volunteerism is the hot trend today?   From “NBA Cares” to “Oprah”, everyone seems to be promoting volunteering.  Even Lady Gaga announced that she’ll give people free tickets to one of her concerts if they will volunteer eight hours working with homeless children.  We have not witnessed such an enthusiasm in volunteerism since President Kennedy gave his inauguration speech on January 20, 1961.  He called on his fellow Americans to ask what we could do for our country, and Americans rallied with enthusiasm.  We are sensing this same kind of enthusiasm today.  Volunteers work billions of hours every year, with the annual dollar value on all that donated time roughly “$225 billion a year” (www.networksforgood.org).

The serge in volunteerism is primarily from two groups of people: the Boomers and the younger generation, often called Millennials. David Isner, former CEO of The Corporation for National and Community Service, in his farewell speech delivered November of 2008 at Georgetown University said,

Baby boomers are today volunteering at rates that exceed volunteering among this age group over past decades by as much as 50 percent. More importantly, this best educated, healthiest, wealthiest, and longest lived generation we’ve ever seen will conservatively double the number of older Americans volunteering within the next ten to twenty years. And, as we chart our course toward becoming a service nation, if the boomers are the wind in our sails, the millennial generation is nothing short of a turbo speedboat engine (From “Dropouts to Downturns”).

But many church leaders don’t know how to take advantage of this trend.  In spite of the trend, they are struggling with recruiting. They only know how “we used to do it.” This doesn’t work for one simple reason that today’s church leaders don’t seem to understand:

Volunteers don’t look like they did yesterday.

Yesterday’s volunteer programs were designed for a different world. And it worked great—back then. Church leaders who still operate like they did in the 20th century are the leaders who keep asking the following questions:

  • Where have all the volunteers gone?
  • Why aren’t people as committed as they used to be?
  • What’s wrong with these young people?
  • Why are people so busy these days?

Sound familiar?

As we begin the second decade of the 21st century, church leaders need to understand the developments and trends which have changed the way we need to operate. Whether we like these changes or not, they’ve produced a new breed of volunteer.

In nature, a series of seismic shifts often result in an earthquake. In the last 20 years, we’ve observed six seismic shifts that have shaken the world of volunteer management and have catalyzed this new breed of volunteer:

  • Family dynamics: From Father Knows Best to Gilmore Girls
  • Isolation: From community to individualism
  • Flexibility: From rigid scheduling to volunteer availability
  • Generations: From experienced veterans to novice Gen Y
  • Technology: From face-to-face to cyberspace
  • Professionalism: From skilled workers to knowledge workers


Family dynamics

In the early 20th century many volunteers were stay-at-home mothers or retired people—most likely your grandmother or great aunt fell in this category.  This trend continued through the mid-20th century.  The volunteer system was designed for the ideal volunteer–a retired person or a woman who had plenty of extra time. In the 1950s, most church volunteers and Sunday school teachers were women. But in the latter half of the 20th century many women began to work outside the home. The demographics of many American families changed from the traditional or nuclear family of mom, dad, 2.6 kids, and a dog, to a single-working-parent home. Movies like Spielberg’s E.T. gave us a glimpse of one typical 1980s American home with the single working mom and her three kids.

By the 1990s, the percentage of families headed by a married couple dropped to 53 percent, according to a U.S. census report. TV’s Gilmore Girls became the norm. Now that Mom had her hands full—and in many cases, didn’t have Dad’s hands to help her—she had much less time to volunteer. As a result, these new family dynamics have dramatically affected the way we recruit volunteers.



To make matters more difficult for the volunteer manager, the end of the 20th century ushered in an increase in isolationism.  When we wrote The New Breed two years ago, we kept hearing that people preferred to bowl alone–not in groups. We said,

In 2000, Robert Putnam of Harvard University wrote a groundbreaking book discussing where Americans spend their time. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community described how people have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures. Putnam used bowling as a metaphor. Years ago, thousands of people belonged to bowling leagues. Today, however, they’re more likely to bowl alone. As people in America choose a fewer number of close friends, they become less likely to be involved in groups that volunteer. That’s depressing. (The New Breed)

The reports of isolationism keep rolling in. Young adults have drifted away from personal interaction when choosing leisure activities.

  • Since 1998, the number of young adults participating in team sports has decreased from 19 percent to 13 percent.
  • The amount of time spent with computers has drastically increased, from 8 percent to 21 percent.
  • The number of young adults going out to the movies has decreased from 13 percent in 1998 to just 3 percent in 2008.
  • The number of adolescents staying home to watch television or rent videos has increased from 24 percent in 1998 to 32 percent in 2008 (MarketingVOX News).


Generation @

Add to the trend of isolationism, the introduction of a whole new set of volunteers, the generation that many call Generation Next. This generation of young people, born after 1981, is also called Gen Y, Millennials, or what we call “Generation @.” Many volunteer recruiters and managers ignore these potential volunteers, but they’re making a huge mistake.

Is Generation @ really different from Gen X? Is Generation @ really much different than when Boomers (born 1946-1964) were “20-somethings” proclaiming, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”? We believe that a whole new group of retiring Boomers and a group of Generation @s not only represent an untapped resource, they’re ready and available if we only know how to reach them.


The knowledge worker

In the late 20th century, the rise of the knowledge worker not only changed the workplace it also affected volunteer management. A knowledge worker is someone who wants to make decisions. Knowledge workers want to be empowered. They want to volunteer, but they want to influence how the volunteer project should be accomplished. Many volunteers today are professionals and want to be treated like professionals.

Tim, a volunteer as a board member for a youth ministry organization, is a computer programmer by trade. He’s meticulous, incredibly organized, and insanely busy. But whenever the organization has computer questions or tech needs, Tim loves to help. Tim hasn’t always been so eager to help out. He previously worked for two other volunteer organizations, but each left a bad taste in his mouth.

Tim never brags about it, but he’s worth about $300 an hour. He can’t stand having his time wasted … and that’s exactly what the other two organizations did. They didn’t provide some of the basic preparations that Tim needed to get the job done right and they didn’t follow through with promises they made. In short, they were unprofessional. Tim hates “unprofessional.” So he took his $300 an hour skills where they were appreciated and put to good use.

Tim provides a perfect example of a knowledge worker who wants to be empowered and treated like a professional. If we fail to remember this, we might lose valuable assets like Tim.



Add to all these changes one of the most dramatic developments greatly influencing volunteer management–the Internet. It opens the door to entire new avenues of volunteering that cross all geographical borders. We can use this practical tool to enhance our existing volunteer program, and we can now recruit a new type of volunteer that never existed before—the virtual volunteer.  From Web 2.0, social networks, and off-site volunteering, the virtual volunteer is a growing trend.


So what?  What can the church do to take advantage of the greater number of people who want to volunteer? 

How can you recruit and manage the whole new group of professionals who are willing and excited to help you make a difference? Ask these questions about yourself and your church to see if you’re really “New Breed Volunteer” friendly.

– Do you have a cause? The new breed of volunteer wants to make a difference, not a contribution.

– Are you providing opportunities for the new breed of volunteers to use their professional (especially technical) skills?

– Are you keeping the standard high? The new breed doesn’t want to work alongside half-committed, unprofessional, “any old way will do” volunteers.

– Are you highlighting the payoffs? Make sure volunteers know what’s in it for them, as well as how their work benefits your cause or mission.

– Are you providing flexibility? The new breed of volunteers is on the go and will often volunteer for more than one organization.

As you evaluate the analysis of the 21st century volunteer, take some time to look at your own volunteer culture. Do you provide opportunities for the new breed of volunteers? Or are you scaring them away?  They will volunteer somewhere.  Is your ministry volunteer friendly?

JONATHAN MCKEE is the author of over a dozen books including Should I Just Smash My Kid’s PhoneThe Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide for Teenagers, The New Breed, and the 10-Minute Talks series. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide while writing about parenting and youth culture and providing free resources for youth workers onTheSource4YM.com. Jonathan, his wife Lori, and his three kids live in California.

JonathanMcKeeWrites.com | Twitter.com/InJonathansHead

Tom McKee is president and owner of www.volunteerpower.com, a leadership development firm specializing in volunteerism. He has over 40 years of experience in volunteer leadership.

Jonathan and Tom, father and son are authors of the book, The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer which details the new cultural shift in volunteer management.