Nonprofits’ dilemma: wooing Firefly crowd

ministry of caring event VOLUNTEER copy
The Food Bank of Delaware, with it’s large volunteer room and popular mission, is a popular spot for student volunteers—so popular that group volunteer opportunities often fill up as much as three months in advance.

By Kathy Canavan

Friendship House is graying. Although the fastest-growing sector of its clients are under 35, the leaders at the homeless outreach center are in their 60s.

Executive Director Bill Perkins successfully recruits younger staff for his Wilmington center, but most stay for a season and move on.

“This is not a question of low wages or long hours,” Perkins said. “The baby-boomer ideal of staying at one place for one’s career is taboo for Gen X and millennials. The same pattern plays itself out with volunteers. “

The younger generations are just as committed to volunteering, Perkins said, but they generally won’t commit to something three weeks in advance like their parents and grandparents will.

If you have an emergency and need six volunteers for the weekend, millennials are the ones you’re going to call. “They can tweet their friends and get you a group overnight,” Perkins said. “Just don’t ask them to commit to a regular time and day.”

Friendship House and other Delaware nonprofits are shifting their expectations to meet the millennial brand of charity.  Gen X and millennials often lack the job security and wealth to give at the same level as their older family members, Perkins said, so an elderly $5,000 donor will need to be replaced by 50 donors giving $100 each.

“Younger donors are more spontaneous—more likely to donate $10 online to a story they read on their tablets than to respond to the traditional end-of-year financial appeal,” he said.

Most board members tend to be 55-plus because millennials find it almost impossible to fit board and committee meetings into their schedules, although they’re happy to help on a special project, Perkins said.

Because younger clients work best with their peers, Friendship House collaborates with Delaware Technical Community College, Neumann University and the University of Delaware to provide internships for credit.

Internships for credit have been key in bringing younger volunteers to the Salvation Army.

“I have personally made it a point to recruit interns that have nice networks. So I have been able to recruit folks who bring a whole crew with them,” said Carl Colantuono, director of development for the Salvation Army.

Colantuono said having two millennial daughters helps him relate to the volunteers he dubs “the Firefly crowd.”

His daughter, Heather, came up with the idea of bell-ringing selfies—kettle volunteers who send selfies of themselves dancing, singing and ringing the bell for the Salvation Army.

“You have to be aware of what their lifestyle is. They’re not the type to go to the annual dinner, unless they’re there to work the auction. They’re certainly not going to sell a table; there’s no way they can afford that,” Colantuono said. “If you look at where the youngsters are, they’re finding their causes. If you connect with them ahead of time and ask them to run the food booth and bring some friends to help, then you’ve got that 20-something group not only enjoying the event, but becoming a part of the organization.”

In his plans: A Salvation Army water-bottle booth at the Firefly Music Festival next June.

Kent Wannamaker selfie for Volunteer copy
Kent Wannamaker’s ringing-the-bell selfie.

Time-pressed young volunteers often do it to satisfy a school volunteerism requirement, to pad their résumés, or to get a foot in the door.

At Beebe Hospital, most young volunteers are in med school or health-care programs that require hospital experience, said Lee Halloran, manager of volunteer services. And, most of the others, are hoping their volunteer work will morph into a job, because Beebe is one of the top employers in the Lewes area.

“It’s sad to say, but they’re really looking at it as more ‘What can I get out of this?’ rather than just the satisfaction of doing the volunteering work. In this setting, 99.9 percent of the folks who are coming here from that age group are coming to get experience,” said Halloran.

The Ministry of Caring is using Twitter, Facebook and email blasts to attract younger volunteers—but one of its best recruitment tools is an older member.

“A lot of our original members are getting older, but they have recognized the importance of bringing in younger members who will bring some youthful energy,” said Mark J. Poletunow, deputy director of the nondenominational nonprofit that helps poor and homeless Delawareans.

Pete Kennedy, the ministry’s communications director, said social media works well for getting the word out for supplies and donations. “If we’re in need of, say, winter coats, for instance,” he said, “those kinds of posts get a lot of views and a lot of shares and a lot of likes, and I do think they translate into donations, although it’s hard to tell if somebody donates because of that.”

The Food Bank of Delaware’s large volunteer room draws fraternities and sororities. Communications Director Kim Turner said group volunteer openings book up as much as three months in advance.

Different nonprofits are trying different methods to woo younger volunteers.

“It’s like anything else,” said Colantuono. “If you want to get the millionaire to donate, you’ve got to find out where he is and get next to him. It’s the same way with young people. It’s about meeting them where they are, and, hopefully, they’ll become engaged for the long haul.”

Share This Post

Post Comment