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Building trust through cross-generational volunteerism

By Jeremy Freeman

Group of youth working with adult volunteer

Happy National Volunteer Week. Did you know that research has shown that volunteers are one of the most critical resources that community organizations have? This behooves us to pay intentional attention to the way we manage and support our volunteer networks. 

Strengthening our communities and creating meaningful change can be advanced through robust and engaged volunteer systems, but this work does not just happen. For our volunteer networks to grow and expand they need to be built upon authentic trust. My UMN Extension colleagues note four ways trust can be built. In a nutshell this work suggests that we do what we say, say what is needed, do the job right, and above all, show care. When we develop volunteer networks that make an impact through open and respectful dialogue, leveraging the skills and experiences of others through caring and intentional relationships, we will enhance trust within our organization. 

  • How do we build trust in youth programs?
  • Why is trust important for community well-being?
  • How can trust extend across our communities? 

One of the ways I believe we can develop and expand trust across our communities is by building a cross-generational volunteer network. Providing youth opportunities to connect in their daily life with peers, young adults, adults and seniors enriches everyone. In her research on generation-based volunteer management practices, Howard writes, “Communities benefit when all generations feel included, and are engaged in things that matter.” Cross-generational volunteerism creates spaces for new networks to develop, life experiences to be shared and common values to be discovered. 

  • What strategies can we use to develop cross-generational networks?
  • How do you see cross-generational relationships benefiting our youth and communities?

Managing a cross-generational volunteer network while valuable brings added challenges to the volunteer manager. Howard goes on to note that “each generation, because it has its own characteristics, responds to messages differently; therefore, it is extremely important to consider targeted approaches in ways you connect and communicate.” Howard outlines several ways in which generational differences relate to recruitment, recognition and retention efforts. Research done over 20 years ago by Culp and Schwartz discovered that recognition efforts that were being offered to volunteer leaders often differed from what volunteers valued. What we perceive as effective may not be a reality. By responding to volunteers on a personal level we can display caring trust and increase volunteer satisfaction and retention. 

  • How can we sensitively and personally engage volunteers across generations?  

Behind every volunteer is a person, a story, and a sacred life. When we manage our volunteers on the basis of their story we show them respect and we invite others to discover new approaches and methods of working, living and being. Reciprocating relationships in this manner will over time cultivate a culture of trust, openness and change that will move into the communities in which we all live and serve.

-- Jeremy Freeman, Extension educator

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