GenX Think Tank: Volunteerism and Philanthropy

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Times are a-changin’ with volunteerism and civic engagement and non-profit organizations serious about succession planning have to pay attention to the shifting sands of volunteer recruitment, particularly when it comes to GenXers. To really understand what motivates GenXers to wave the flag for a cause or launch projects and intiatives with measurable, visible impact in their local communities, , we turned to our panel for their insights and perspectives.

  • Hessie Jones, CEO of ArCompany.
  • Douglas Knight, non-profiteer and founder of Connect The Dots Movement
  • Lisa Konopinski, middle school teacher and my better half, Advisor for the Junior Honor Society, Relay for Life, Cancer Socieity
  • Bob LeDrew, social media and communications consultant at Translucid Communications.
  • Heidi Tsao, usability designer at Morneau Shepell, Volunteer with CNIB, Santa Claus Parade, Not Far from the Tree

You can view the hangout in its entirety, or read on for our recap.

If you’ve been paying attention to GenX Think Tank, you know that our discussion of research pointing out key differences between generations (and with a focus on GenXers) often serves as a jumping off point for further discussion, so a few introductory stats to get things started:

  • In 2013, GenXers accounted for 19.8 million volunteers, logging 201.2 million hours of service.
  • One in fours adults volunteered through an organization, demonstrating that volunteering remains an important activity for millions of Americans.
  • 6 million Americans (sorry, Canadians!) volunteered nearly 7.7 billion hours in 2013. The estimated value of this service is nearly $173 billion.

Why is there a rise in GenX volunteerism when other demographics (namely Boomers) aren’t living up to projection?

In part, the marked rise in GenX service hours reflects the volunteer lifecycle; individual involvement increases as people feel more connected to their communities through home ownership, career stability, and, for some, having children. Lisa introduced a particularly interesting point that drove the discussion: through her involvement with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, she has noticed a shift in the way the organization engages team and individual participation.

People aren’t looking for long-term commitments like sitting on a board or a project group; they’re looking for experiences.

Experience-focused volunteerism is a shift in mindset for many organizations, though there are numerous examples of flagship events connected to non-profits that have focused on meaningful experiences vs. traditional fundraising models. The Susan G. Komen 3-Day, Livestrong Foundation’s Livestrong Ride and Avon Walk for Breast Cancer are experience-driven events; participants are fundraising along the way, but the ultimate payoff for them is the achievement in completing the long bike ride or walk in solidarity with others.

GenXers are the new-wave of “transient” volunteers

For GenXers who seek involvement at the organizational level, there’s a growing dissatisfaction with traditional board structures (and the accompanying inefficiencies that often plague decision-making) and a shift towards what Bob called “transient involvement” — a quick huddle of volunteers rolling up their sleeves, swooping in to get the job done, and disappearing until the next project or initiative captures their attention.

There’s an opportunity to help organizations be prepared for people like us. Most of us just aren’t interested in sitting on a board for five years, but we can be around for five days.

Give Us The Projects, Man

As the prestige of the board appointment fades for GenXers, boots on the ground volunteerism is more about making a difference where we are — in our communities, in our cities, and for our industries. Sweat equity put into an organization is infinitely more impactful than the traditional “charity” model of giving back what’s left over at the end of the year. Doug noted that what makes a good (i.e. effective, meaningful and memorable) volunteer program isn’t just a long list of names on the volunteer list, but people excited and empowered to do great work that matters. As per Doug, “For the [Boomer] generation before, philanthropy was about prestige: You made your money, you made your mark and then you gave back. For GenX we’ve transitioned into a different mindset.” In the end, volunteerism become synonymous with leadership as the charity model of how many people viewed non-profit work  is replaced with social enterprise. “It’s good for the community. It’s good business. It’s good for the spirit and the soul. There’s a lot of win-win-win as this dynamic shifts.” As the old saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.

The Why of Getting Involved

Emotional connection — and  the story — are at the epicenter of what takes GenXers from passive observers to active participants and volunteers. Cultivating a culture of volunteerism and social philanthropy starts from a place of common purpose and identity, particularly when we look at the informal volunteering that happens in neighborhoods — helping an older neighbor with their grocery shopping or shoveling out a walkway after a heavy snowfall. For this panel, volunteerism was introduced through family not as an obligation or requirement for graduation from high school, a point raised by Heidi, but as a way of supporting and feeding the ties of community that connect us to one another. Lisa noted that her parents were active in her activities growing up.

We often overlook the volunteer work that our parents were part of because it aligned with their parental role.

The impact to organizations is significant; we are introduced by kinship ties, an emotional connection is forged, and from there, the path towards engagement and leadership is established. We see, we feel, we do.

Community Involvement is Good Business

Corporate culture can have a measurable impact on volunteerism within the GenX demographic as well. Google’s now-famous model of devoting 20% of the work week to the personal passion project has translated into civic engagement and social enterprise work; it’s the notion of supporting the community that supported you at various phases in your own growth towards a more equitable and sustainable future. At the individual level, being active in the community becomes very much a lifestyle and way of being. Doug’s passion for the Connect the Dots Movement enables this concept of Social Enterprise by enabling the connection among organizations, government, and education within the community. It’s less about charity, and more about the betterment of the community and business.

Can you Force Someone to Care?

As GenX parents we want to set the standard for our kids and guide them into understanding the world around them, and making good decisions that create a beneficial outcome for others. Heidi questioned whether we ca influence “caring” if the intent is not there. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge surface strong social media attention to the cause. But it also revealed a wave of “humble-bragging” at the same time. People were doing it for self-centred reasons. Doug justified this and noted that the rise of social media made this an inevitability but it also brought the strength of visibility to the cause. Bob noted that the one “person” who started this viral campaign was NOT directly connected to ALS, but somehow the organization itself tried to capitalize on it in their attempts to trademark the #IceBucketChallenge.

Friend-Raising: People give to People – NOT Causes

This was an important point by Doug. Whether it’s introduced by family or friends, we give because we know people within those organizations. It’s those connections and more importantly, those discussions that will drive more volunteerism. Lisa’s story about the Four Diamonds Fund that has successfully raised millions of dollars to the local hospital for Cancer has created a collective community of volunteers who come together and raise money because of the events that enable “increased community” whether it be a local dance or a food truck event. Hessie noted that local hospitals that continue the old-school of fundraising: by focusing on the big black tie events to attract the pillars of the community are doing themselves a disservice by not reaching out to the community, who can only afford to give a few dollars at a time. At the end of the day, as Jason noted, these same organizations are putting themselves at a risk, ‘disenfrachising’ those who cannot afford the big check. Doug said it well,

Love doesn’t pay the rent. Big bucks are good… but if [an organization] sells their soul too far the other way, they’ve chosen [money] over community.

In the long term, it becomes more difficult to sustain.

Does the End Justify the Means?

Social Enterprise has become a buzz word. Are organizations jumping on board because it builds increased organizational credibility? Is there authenticity in building a social enterprise if the intent is not there? One would question whether if the outcome was same, does it matter whether there was no real intent on doing “good”. Both Heidi and Bob talked about the #BellLetsTalk Campaign that raised Millions for Mental Health. The argument to give the campaign dollars to the cause as opposed to create the actual campaign brings to question Bell’s intent. As per Bob,

Bell saturated its media properties a few weeks before the actual day… You could not turn to a radio station without getting some coverage of the campaign.

For many large organizations, Heidi pointed out that the financial goals [not the social goals] are paramount to stakeholders who only care about the “What’s-In-It-For-Me” (WIIFM


  • GenXers want to get involved and do meaningful work within their communities and spheres of influence.
  • GenXers are less likely to take on board roles or positions where there is not immediate community benefit. Expect GenXers to be looking to take active roles to develop strong outcomes and then move on to the next project.
  • Charity becomes less relevant as this definition starts to blur with the rise of Social Enterprise. If GenX can mobilize local business and organizations to take a more active role in benefitting the community-at-large, they will leverage their networks to make it happen.
  • Philanthropy is closely tied with ethical buying and supporting small businesses. Companies like Toms make it easy for GenXers to have an impact with their buying behaviors.
  • Non-profit organizations can experience substantial changes in leadership and direction by engaging GenXers on special project groups and event-oriented programming.

Photo credit: MG8V8796 via photopin (license).

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