U3A’s greatest challenge: How to get Baby Boomers to help us

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U3A’s greatest challenge: How to get Baby Boomers to help us

by  Graeme Eggins

“We’re having real trouble getting anyone at all to volunteer for the committee. The same with tutors.”

How many times have you heard a U3A President, Secretary or class coordinator say this or something very similar? The problem of finding new active volunteers to replace U3A leaders, administrators and teachers is worldwide – and not just among U3As. All sorts of non-profit community groups, ranging from charity shops to service clubs, face the same problem. Recruitment was a hot topic for discussion at this year’s Network conference. That was the reason the May Newslink re-published my 2009 article titled “How to get new committee people.” Most of the tips in that article are still relevant despite the changes we have seen in the past seven years, specially as we have aged more as a nation. The people who established U3As in Australia over the past 20 years are moving into their fourth age of increasing physical and mental frailty. They are the Traditionalists, the postDepression generation born in the 1930s and early ‘40s. Today, Traditionalists like me need to hand the U3A baton on to the next generation, the Baby Boomers, those who were born between 1945 and 1964.

Will Boomers step forward?

But will the Baby Boomers grab the baton of responsibility with eagerness, hold it uncertainly or simply refuse to take it? Indications are that Boomers are not all that keen to take on any volunteer role that does not involve a pay cheque. I heard one say: “Look I’ve paid my money. I’ve worked hard all my life. I don’t expect to do it now. I’ve retired.” A spokesperson for Volunteers Australia recently said volunteer numbers in Australia had declined by 5% overall in the past 20 years. She said NSW has an estimated two million volunteers, many working in charities, but most of them are either quite young or quite old. These days all kinds of community nonprofits are bewailing the lack of new blood. Go into your nearest charity shop – the volunteer serving you if more likely to be over 80 than over 60. Baby Boomers, sometimes called “coffin dodgers,” are making new demands on community resources, including independent care facilities. They want the best. In my area – the far North Coast of NSW – the majority of long-established residential aged care providers are now spending millions of dollars building or renovating new larger and better equipped units to meet the Boomers demands. The Boomers and GenerationXers are the people who have to provide the next generation of U3A tutors, leaders and administrators. Many have already joined U3A. They appreciate the chance to meet people in a community that may be new to them (many move out of cities on retirement), to socialise and to learn new skills. But do they want to take on U3A responsibilities? In two words – Not really. So what can you do as a recruiter? Here are some strategies to add to those already outlined in the May Newslink.

Tips on “selling” U3A?

Try selling the benefits of volunteering.
Points you could include: ?

  • Volunteering makes you happier because you feel really good about yourself ?
  • It can be fun to work in a team free of work pressures ?
  • You have the opportunity to make new friends with like-minded people (This appeal is particularly effective for newcomers to your district) ?
  • You can demonstrate your skills and knowledge gained over a lifetime of experience ?
  • You gain increased status and public approval as a person valued by the community. ?
  • You may learn not only new skills but new ways of coping with ageing, specially when you meet people facing health challenges greater than yours. ?
  • This is your chance to make a positive difference in many other people’s lives and leave a legacy to following generations of U3Aers.

Also, consider offering volunteers some sort of benefit. For example reduced membership fees (yes, I know that goes against the U3A credo but this is real life) and distinctive membership badges.

Identify potential volunteers

Consider a “Welcome new members” column in your newsletter or on your Website. This column could include a thumbnail photo if available, a brief biography, the name they like to be called and a summary of their main hobbies and interests. (You may need to redesign your membership form to gather some of this information but of course you must get members’ approval to use it). Alternatively, find out what skills your members have by asking them to complete a short form – then you’ll know who best to target.

Remember current members

Don’t overlook current members who may have refused in the past. Sometimes the “no” means, “not now.”
Sometimes “no” means that the prospect feels that he/she would rather do something else. In that case you can ask if the person can think of another position they would prefer.

Of course, some volunteers are happy to be helpers but never leaders. As a U3A recruiter, you have to accept their self-assessment and welcome their assistance. Many older people are frightened of public speaking, scared of talking to large groups but perfectly happy chatting to people of their own age group. Here’s where mentors can be very useful. A mentor is not just for young people, older people appreciate and value them for providing support, encouragement and advice in a new role. Perhaps as a prospective tutor they could do just a single presentation to a small group. Or what about starting a study circle on one particular topic – say, Life in Mediaeval Times. Each member of the group gets to present to the rest on one aspect that they are interested in. For example, the fashion of the day, the music, the role of the church, what people of the time ate, the social structure. And so on.

Ask them to serve

You’ve identified a likely prospect. What next? Get a friend to ask them or do it yourself. A recent National Survey of Volunteering in the UK looked at the variety of ways in which people get involved in volunteering. Some 47 per cent said “Someone asked me to help”. Those who were not volunteering but who expressed an interest in doing so, wanted “a personal invitation to help” and “a chance to volunteer with a friend or colleague”. As one activist said, “I don’t recruit people. I just think who might be able to help, tell them what we need, and ask them to do it. They hardly ever turn me down.”

That may not be your experience but direct asking is still worth trying. A variation on using friends is to have the recruiter say, “Let’s you and I work together.” By sharing one job, two people can often put more energy and creativity into the task. This tends to work best if you have, for example, a President and a President-elect.

One person is the final decision maker in case of disagreements and the other is preparing to step into that role next year.

Let them choose a role

Invite potential volunteers to attend committee meetings as an observer so that they can see what goes on. As far as possible, let the person choose their role rather than being pushed into it. Let potential tutors call themselves what they like, even though your U3A may have a preferred term. Volunteers can be a class tutor, a convener, a co-ordinator, a facilitator or whatever other term they prefer. If seeking new tutors for popular, long running courses, the obvious candidates include regulars who have been attending those classes for a long time. Regulars can be asked to start a beginners’ group to take some of the pressure off the existing tutor. But be careful. A few long-established tutors don’t want rivals in their teaching area and certainly not understudies. They suffer from the Messiah complex and, to be frank, can’t be cured. In such cases, be grateful for their contribution.

Support your volunteers

As a first step, a personal “thank you” or letter from the President or class co-ordinator is always a good way to introduce a volunteer to their new role in U3A. Unfortunately, some U3As provide minimum support when new people take over a job, specially if it is administrative. One class co-ordinator told me recently: “When I took over organising, I was given a piece of paper with a couple of contacts and phone numbers, told who to be wary of and that’s about all. “Then the previous co-ordinator took off for a long overseas trip.” Experience shows that when you have a new volunteer, ask an experienced volunteer to work with them to show them the ropes if at all possible. The newcomer will get up to speed faster and, if your mentor does their job well, will feel more like a part of the team from the start.

Some tutors create a paper file with information on their most common activities. Additionally, many U3As have developed guidelines, policies and procedures to help volunteers understand their roles.

That of U3A Northern Rivers is typical. Go to http://www.u3anriv.org.au/constitution.htm and click on ‘Policies and Guidelines’ on the RHS of the page.

Be flexible

Of course, U3A job descriptions are not set in concrete. Volunteers must be allowed some flexibility in how their handle their responsibilities. But the executive leaders should expect committee members to actually do work – not just sit in on meetings and contribute nothing relevant. They like the title but not the work. Beware of what the Americans call the BIC (Butt in chair) trap. In other words you are so desperate you’ll take anyone. Most times the chair is better empty than filled with the wrong person who does nothing useful or who is high maintenance.

Be appreciative.

Warmly welcome volunteers, publicly and privately. Say “We are so glad you’re here – we really need you.” Publish a portrait photo and brief biography in your newsletter not only of newcomers but also of established tutors. Perhaps the Editor could include a few brief words of appreciation from their students. Organise volunteer-only lunches or award ceremonies where tutors can discuss mutual problems (e.g. how to stop one person from dominating a class) and be briefed on policy changes. Another potential hurdle for some otherwise eager volunteer is the length of the commitment, usually 12 months. Can you organize for someone to do the job for a shorter period?

The final solution?

What if all fails? Your current administrators and tutors are leaving and no one is volunteering to replace them. The obvious solution: Pay people to do the job.
(Pause while everyone screams in horror) Yes, U3A is a non-profit self-help group founded on the principle of pure voluntary labour with no anticipation of financial reward. But many Baby Boomers expect to be paid their input. They’ve paid for help (babysitters, car mechanics, gardeners etc) all their working life and expect similar treatment. Commented one veteran U3A executive: “They say:’ I’ve paid my subscription fee – now entertain me.’ “They don’t seem to understand that U3A is not in business to teach and amuse people and make a profit.” And if your committee feels that paying for service is against U3A principles , consider this possible alternative – volunteers paid for by the government.

Can Newstart help?

The suggestion is that suitable people currently receiving the Newstart allowance could possibly – if government authorities approved – undertake some administrative or even teaching roles in their local U3As. The allowance is currently available to unemployed people over 22 years of age, including those within a few years of retirement but still too young to qualify for an aged pension Anecdotally I have heard that some charity shops have “employed” Newstart recipients over 60 to help sort clothes, arrange displays and similar work for a few hours a week. Apparently government authorities have in the past recognised that many people who lost a job at the age of 55 or more are extremely unlikely to get another paid job, no matter how hard they try.

These unemployed include often heads of departments and seniors with years of experience in all sorts of ventures. These often highly qualified people may be happy to do paid community work if no other paid work is available.

Currently to get a Newstart allowance you must be under pension age, regarded as
unemployed and “Unless exempted from mutual obligation requirements, must participate in or be willing to participate in approved activities (my emphasis) and/or job search.”
The Department of Human Services web site says eligible job seekers may be able to meet their Mutual Obligation Requirements by working voluntarily for a non-profit group. Before job seekers start, they need to verify that the position is suitable for them and meets the department’s requirements. Could working in U3A be approved for older job seekers? I don’t know but it could be worth finding out.

Of course the policy vacuum caused by the close Federal election result could result in changes to policies such as Newstart.

At the time of writing, single Newstart beneficiaries received a basic rate of $527.60 a fortnight, rising to $570.80 for people aged 60 or over after nine continuous months on payment. Applicants are subject to both an assets and income tests.

To sum up

As former PM Malcolm Fraser once famously said: ”Life was not meant to be easy.” It isn’t easy getting people to volunteer in U3A – ask any President if you don’t believe me – but it can be done. Hopefully this and the previous Newslink article will help you build an even brighter future in your U3A. The tips and hints mentioned are based on more than 20 years of experience with U3A leaders in Australia. I would like to particularly thank former Network President Pat McLaren-Smith for her invaluable input.