Bagging those Boomtown Boomers

   One thing more certain in Whatcom County than death and taxes is that we can be counted upon to talk about growth even if a hat is not dropped.
   Regardless of one’s views on the subject, ranging from putting up the Great Wall of Whatcom to whatever one’s version of “Y’all come” might be here in The Corner, the fact is that we have already received some great, barely discovered resources.
   They are retirees, semi-retirees and those who work but have some time on their hands for community service in a place they chose to live. We can complain about the impact of the newcomers, but the smart response would be to find as many as we can, give them the warmest possible welcome and ask them how we might help them reach some of their personal goals for community service.
   My hunch is that we are seeing many baby boomers quite familiar with the prospect of turning 60 or with a recent memory of such a milestone in their lives.
   Baby boomers are the estimated 77 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. While it may have gone unnoticed at your place, Jan. 1, 2006, was the day the first boomers woke up to the fact that they are now sixty (twice the age of people they were taught not to trust in earlier times).
   Boomers are the leading edge of a demographic cohort that is increasingly looking for ways to give back and to make lives for themselves that provide more personal satisfaction than their work may have brought them. Those of you who have passed the half-century mark may be familiar with the “Is this all there is?” moment that crept up on us when we thought we couldn’t have it any better.
   These leading edge boomers went through the 1960s, a time of idealism, fueled in part by President Kennedy’s call to “ask what you can do for your country.” Unlike previous generations reaching this milestone, our newly minted sexagenarians are better educated than their parents, more vigorous and likely to live longer.
   Their experience also includes computer skills and many modern management techniques that nonprofits and even businesses can use if they are willing to respect this promising cadre of workers and meet them on their terms.
   Boomers want meaningful work — paid or unpaid — that has some impact, but it must also come without the longer commitments we have traditionally expected of volunteers. Many of today’s older volunteers travel a lot, but they are willing to do meaningful work for shorter stretches in between trips or other commitments of their time.
   Our local nonprofits and civic engagement groups cannot afford to pass up this golden opportunity to make good use of the skills and passion for community service many Boomers are looking to use if we will just find them and become flexible enough to learn what they would most like to do.
   Too often our nonprofits are so busy doing their work with inadequate staff resources that they cannot find the time break old habits in order to employ the advanced skills boomers offer and they need.
   Many others elsewhere have been paying attention to this phenomenon, and the philanthropic press is now full of information on baby boomers as part-time workers and volunteers. Some examples can be seen at the Civic Ventures Web site (www.civicventures.com).
   Some of the more compelling existing programs are instructive. The Executive Service Corps of Chicago uses retired corporate executives to mentor nonprofit CEOs, something that could work here. A few Peace Corps veterans formed Peace Corps Encore, which now places former Peace Corps volunteers overseas for short stints for those over 50.
   One national effort to encourage more boomer volunteering is being carried out jointly by the Harvard School of Public Health and Met/Life under the leadership of Jay Winsten, the Harvard professor behind the very successful “designated driver” program years ago. This national ad campaign just starting to appear under the tagline “Again” will encourage civic engagement “again” for those who were once motivated to provide community service in their younger years.
   A growing number of foundations (although still a very small minority) are funding projects to encourage nonprofits to create meaningful work — paid and unpaid — for this new generation of older Americans who will no longer be satisfied with stuffing envelopes when they have so much more to offer.
   The leader of this effort is Atlantic Philanthropies, which has already invested $50 million in organizations working to promote the civic engagement of older people. Businesses are already trying to make the adjustments necessary to attract people who are working much later in life than their parents.
   However, nonprofits are not making the adjustment nearly as quickly, and interviews have shown that they aren’t yet very interested in doing so. Some businesses are not doing much better, either, for they are not encouraging their retired employees or those about to retire to do volunteer work, even though a majority of employees state that they would like to do volunteer work through their former employers.
   Changing this would have a beneficial effect on the businesses in the form of loyalty by those who are doing the volunteering or benefiting from it.
   Our Whatcom County newcomers — boomers and others — who have not yet become connected to our local nonprofit sector or other volunteer efforts that mean so much are, in fact, hidden resources that could add so much to the quality of our life as a community as they share with us all the gifts they have been given and the difference they want to make if only we will adjust a bit to their schedules and their talents.
   We need to get creative about finding them and giving them compelling opportunities to serve and to reap the huge personal satisfactions that come from that service. Most of all, we need the difference they can make in our lives together as a community.

Don Drake has spent 20 years working in executive roles in philanthropy. He served as president of Whatcom Community Foundation from 1997 until September 2005.

Related Stories