WHO IS THE NEW BREED OF VOLUNTEER? A Profile of the 21st Century Volunteer

By Jonathan McKee and Thomas McKee
From , Group Publishing, Inc., 2012, ch. 1, pp.3-24

Volunteers don’t look like they did yesterday. Yesterday’s volunteer programs were designed for a different world. And it worked great—back then. Volunteer managers who still operate like they did in the 20th century are the managers who keep asking the following questions:

Where have all the volunteers gone?

Why aren’t people as committed as they used to be?

What’s wrong with these young people?

Why are people so busy these days?

Sound familiar?

At times we’ve found ourselves asking the same questions. But contrary to what many of us might feel, plenty of volunteers in the 21st century are willing to get involved. In actuality, a whole arena of new volunteers exists who’ll get involved and be committed to our organizations and churches. But they’ll become involved according to their rules, not ours.

As we approached the end of the 20th century and entered the new millennium, developments and trends evolved that changed the way we need to operate. Whether we like these changes or not, they’ve produced a new breed of volunteer.

These new developments and trends were like seismic shifts—small changes and adjustments that caused a massive transformation. In nature, a series of seismic shifts often result in an earthquake. In the last 20 years, we’ve observed 10 seismic shifts that have shaken the world of volunteer management and have catalyzed this new breed of volunteer:

  1. Family Dynamics: From Father Knows Best to Two and a Half Men
  2. Isolation: From community to individualism
  3. Flexibility: From rigid scheduling to volunteer availability
  4. Generations: From experienced veterans to novice Gen Y
  5. Technology: From face-to-face to cyberspace
  6. Professionalism: From skilled workers to knowledge workers
  7. Episodic Volunteering: From long-term commitments to short-term projects
  8. Slacktivism: From hard work to easy, “feel-good” tasks
  9. Micro-Volunteering: From big-time commitments to bite-sized projects
  10. Speed: From slow movements to fast responses to change


These seismic shifts together represent the biggest change in volunteering in the 21st century. Simply put, the new breed of volunteer drives the program. The new breed of volunteer wants to call the shots. These volunteers want to be asked what they see as the needs in the organization and how they can help accomplish the mission. They have a passion for the cause of the organization but can’t always fit into the old mold or organizational pattern. The old system worked well with stay-at-home moms and the retired senior adults. But the new system needs to be more flexible and able to customize the job for the volunteer.

Today, many volunteer managers feel like, “Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.” (Ironically, many of their Gen Y volunteers don’t even know where that line comes from!) From the organization’s perspective, volunteering might feel a little like a mishmash of unconnected programs. But from the perspective of the volunteers, they feel like they’re making a difference and they tell others about the positive experiences with our organizations. Because their volunteer work specifically meets their schedules and passions, these individuals want to get involved.


Do you recognize people like this in your organization? The new breed of volunteer:

  • is very busy, has many obligations, and often volunteers for multiple organizations.
  • wants flexibility.
  • expects to be empowered.
  • won’t tolerate working alongside incompetent volunteers.
  • is tech-savvy.
  • doesn’t want to simply make a contribution; the new breed of volunteer wants to make a difference.
  • doesn’t want to be micromanaged.

Volunteer programs need to expand to include the new breed of volunteer or else they’ll face extinction. For you, this expansion might be radical, or maybe you’ve been adapting to many of these developments for the last decade.

As you evaluate what you read in the pages ahead, take some time to look at your own volunteer history. Do you provide opportunities for the new breed of volunteers? Or are you scaring them away?

You might already be asking yourself, “How will I manage these kinds of volunteers?” or “How will I train them?” These questions won’t even be an issue if you don’t have any volunteers. So, before we explore managing and training (in Section Two), let’s take a peek at an effective strategy for recruiting the new breed of volunteer.

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