Engaging older adult volunteers in national service.

Author:McBride, Amanda Moore

Volunteer-based programs are increasingly designed as interventions to affect the volunteers and the beneficiaries of the volunteers' activities. To achieve the intended impacts for both, programs need to leverage the volunteers' engagement by meeting their expectations, retaining them, and maximizing their perceptions of benefits. Programmatic features that may increase volunteer engagement include supervision, flexibility, assistance, training, recognition, and stipend support. Using longitudinal data from a study of older adult volunteers in Experience Corps (N = 208), the present study tested the facilitative effects of these features on volunteer engagement. Regression results indicated that positive perceptions of supervision and assistance predicted exceeded expectations, whereas supervision, flexibility, and recognition predicted retention and benefits. Stipend receipt also predicted benefits. Results indicated that these facilitation measures are conceptually and empirically similar and have an overall positive impact on volunteer engagement outcomes when treated additively. In the context of the study's implications, findings suggest that volunteer management "basics" facilitate volunteer engagement among the sample of older adult volunteers, with implications for practice and future research.

KEY WORDS: older adults; outcomes; volunteer management; volunteerism


Volunteers are a crucial part of social work's history as well as of current social service delivery. Social work has long depended on volunteers to work with those in need and to mobilize individuals to action, through such historic strategies as the charity organization societies and the settlement house movement. Today's volunteer-based strategies are more diverse in form and function. Volunteerism is often structured and implemented by professional staff through programs whereby volunteers fill a distinct role and engage in a specific activity for a predetermined time commitment. In the United States, top direct service activities performed by volunteers include tutoring, teaching, and collecting and distributing food (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2009). Volunteers are used to increase the capacity of organizations to deliver services and achieve planned outcomes for service beneficiaries. Increasingly it has been found that volunteers themselves also benefit across a range of psychological, health, and other outcome areas (Corporation for National and Community Service, 2007). In this way, volunteer-based programs are interventions that may affect a range of outcomes for different stakeholder groups (Sherraden, 2001b). In this study, we focus on the volunteers and how programs may be structured to support volunteer engagement.

Beyond the actual service activity that the volunteer performs, there is a programmatic structure around volunteer recruitment and retention, similar to human resource management in paid employment. Volunteer management is often delegated to a program manager or considered an expendable cost when budgets are tight. However, in a volunteer service program, the volunteers are the program, and the associated human resource structure is crucial. Managing volunteers effectively may have costs, but the costs of doing so ineffectively may be greater. Research has begun to identify specific features that may promote effective volunteer engagement (Hager & Brudney, 2004). Strategies that are increasingly institutionalized across the field include orientation, training, and supervision. Volunteer recognition activities are also common. However, a challenge in this field is that the volunteers themselves and the activities they implement are diverse, making generalization across studies of volunteer programs difficult (Cnaan & Cascio, 1999). Moreover, few studies have been able to isolate and compare the unique effect of distinct programmatic features on various aspects of volunteer engagement--from meeting the volunteers' expectations to retaining volunteers to increasing volunteers' perceived benefits (Omoto & Snyder, 2002). For example, we do not know the value of one institutional feature over another for preventing a volunteer from dropping out or for increasing the marginal utility of volunteering for the volunteers themselves.

In this study, we focus on the national service program Experience Corps, which brings older adult volunteers into public elementary schools to improve low-reading students' academic achievement through one-on-one tutoring, small group academic help, and teacher support. Experience Corps was started in 1995 and at this writing operates in 18 cities, where a total of 2,000 volunteers over the age of 55 serve 20,000 elementary school students. The participating elementary schools are located predominately in urban centers and have a disproportionate number of low-achieving students. At a national level, there are institutionalized features of this volunteer program model, which are implemented at the local level. Inevitably, there is variability across the sites in implementation, which enables comparison across features and their outcomes. Those features that are associated with the most beneficial outcomes may be suggestive of effective facilitators of volunteer engagement.


Experience Corps operates as a volunteer service institution, meaning that it structures citizens' voluntary contributions to others at a large scale (Perry & Thomson, 2004; Sherraden, 2001a). As volunteer service policies and programs have grown in prevalence (Sherraden, 2001a), particular features have been institutionalized--that is, they are standard, expected, and implemented across sites. The features are purposively included in the program model to enhance the volunteer experience and promote service impacts.

As a national program, Experience Corps is based in Washington, DC, but it operates through program affiliate sites across the country (see http://www.experiencecorps.org/index.cfm). Affiliates include nonprofit and public organizations, such as Generations Incorporated, a nonprofit in Boston, and the South East Texas Regional Planning Commission, an association of local governments in Port Arthur, Texas. The affiliates apply to the national office to operate an Experience Corps program, and they must have the operational infrastructure to manage the program, including paid volunteer management staff. As part of the national program, local affiliates adhere to program missions and standards, participate in national training and support activities, and receive assistance with fundraising and expansion efforts. In all cases, school districts and elementary schools elect to work with the affiliates to participate in the program.

The local programs share common features, but there are also variations that reflect the nature and preferences of the local communities. Across all affiliates, a focus is placed on recruiting volunteers from the neighborhoods surrounding the participating schools. Marketing strategies at each affiliate include some mix of word of mouth (from current volunteers or staff), media (flyers mailed to homes in target neighborhoods), and website appeals. To participate, potential volunteers must submit an application and personal references, pass a background check, and be interviewed by Experience Corps staff.

Although there are variations across the affiliates, all volunteers receive training on literacy as well as on relationship building and managing behavior. After training, volunteers are placed in classrooms and work with teachers to tutor children individually and in small groups and to assist the teacher as needed. Most Experience Corps programs hold monthly team meetings that provide additional training and offer volunteers a chance to talk about successes as well as challenges they face. The staff personally manage the volunteers, including when there are challenging situations and when the volunteer must miss "work" because of illness or family responsibilities. Staff also manage the stipend award process. Some but not all programs provide stipends in exchange for a commitment of a certain number of hours per week throughout the academic year; monies for stipends are obtained from the federal AmeriCorps program, private foundations, and school districts. Finally, most Experience Corps affiliates arrange formal recognition activities, including annual dinners and awards for service. Staff are also responsible for providing volunteers with feedback about their performance, which if positive serves as reinforcement and recognition.


A growing body of work is developing to explain the implications of institutionalized features in volunteer service models, such as those included in Experience Corps (Hong, Morrow-Howell, Tang, & Hinterlong, 2009; McBride & Lee, 2011; Morrow-Howell, Hinterlong, Rozario, & Tang, 2003; Morrow-Howell, Hinterlong, Sherraden, & Rozario, 2001; Morrow-Howell, Hinterlong, Sherraden, et al., 2003; Tang, Morrow-Howell, & Hong, 2009). In this study, institutional features are conceptualized as facilitators only when they leverage volunteer engagement (Farmer & Fedor, 2000; McBride & Sherraden, 2007; McBride, Sherraden, Benitez, & Johnson, 2004; Morrow-Howell et al., 2001). Functionally, the features may increase the volunteers' capacity to perform the role or otherwise mitigate challenges faced by the volunteer, thus acting as a facilitator to meet volunteers' expectations, retain them in the role, and increase their perceived benefits. These outcomes reflect crucial aspects of volunteer engagement and may in fact be related to one another (Omoto & Snyder, 2002). Expectations often must be met in order for volunteers to stay in the role, and perceived benefits often reinforce expectations and may also increase the longer the volunteer stays in the role. Met expectations and retention...

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