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The Rise of Boomer Volunteering

Sarah Palmer -
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July 4, 2012

There’s been a lot of “Baby boomer voluntourism is a new trend” talk lately, so to keep from rehashing old news, let’s skip the what-can-they-do chat (by the way, the answer is “everything”), and get into the why and how for this article. Why are boomers volunteering abroad? And how are they drawn to a service program?

Why do boomers volunteer?

In researching this article, it became immediately apparent that one could write a whole book on that question alone. A few main points, though:


Let’s use my parents as examples. They got married pretty young and had my brother and me in their early 20s. As you can imagine, this kept them from saving much for quite some time. Not only did mum and dad have two kids to care for, but they also had to pay down student loans, a car, credit cards, and a house. Traveling abroad just didn’t happen in their universe, much less volunteering (and paying to volunteer!) abroad.

Fast forward to 2012: Mum and dad have worked steadily over the past 20-something years, and wouldn’t you know it, they’ve started saving a heck of a lot more once Lance and I moved out! And when I went off to college, they began traveling abroad; they can totally hop around Europe and stay in cozy lil’ B&Bs now, rather than road tripping to Virginia and crashing with family.


Again using my parents as an example: They have more time saved up than when they were younger. First of all, dad’s worked at the same place for 15 years, so he’s got a good deal of annual leave. Mum is a consultant with her own hours and her own office, but she could only do it after so many years’ gaining the skills and expertise needed to go it alone. If she wants to work remotely (like from Southeast Asia, as she’s mentioned recently), she just needs a reliable Internet connection.

Between having more money and more time, all of their vacations are overseas; and now they muse about retiring in a few years, living on a boat, and traveling from country to country for as long as they want.


When mum was a kid, she wrote a letter to President Nixon asking if she could join the Peace Corps - basically the only volunteer abroad program in America at the time. Of course she was like, twelve years old, so she couldn’t join just yet, so she got a nice response saying she should get involved with her community, and maybe when she was older she could go to Ghana.

I asked her why she never joined (aside from gettin’ hitched at 21), and she said, “I could go abroad, but I need toilet paper.”

Volunteer abroad programs not only offer a variety of service opportunities, but some have also gone the way of getting down and dirty during the day, and providing comfort (and two-ply TP) at night. There are way more options now than Peace Corps, and a good number of these companies offer side trips and excursions that just weren’t available (or readily available) when baby boomers were younger.
What draws them in?

International Volunteer Card brought up a really great point that gets to the meat of this question: baby boomers see volunteering as optional. Rather than being motivated by a sense of duty, as their parents were, volunteering is viewed as an additional incentive to their trip overseas. The 50+ crowd volunteer not just for the sake of volunteering, but also to have a fantastic experience in another country, while still being comfortable, certain that their needs are met, and satisfied with the overall experience.


Again, the volunteering aspect of the trip is optional; they want something in addition to it. What kind of housing is offered, and is it worth the price of the trip? What other activities are there - like cooking lessons, guided excursions, or horseback riding?

While of course they want to give back and do some good, they also want to have fun and be comfortable at the end of the day. Structured programs, like those offered by luxury or adventure tour companies draw boomers more easily than flexible, backpacker-style projects. They want to offer their skills and expertise, but they also want to get something in return.


First of all, have an awesome website. If they’re paying to volunteer, they expect a certain level of support and comfort. If they think you have a poorly or cheaply designed site, then they’ll assume you’ll have a poorly or cheaply designed program.

Secondly, show them and tell them everything about their trip. They’ll need to know which hotel they’re staying in, not just a hotel. Again, using my dad as an example, he won’t book a hotel based on text; he needs to see pictures, read reviews, and map it out before he’s certain it’s where he wants to stay.

Detail their schedule - not just the overall trip schedule, but the day-to-day tasks. This gives them a handle on how much time is spent volunteering, in what capacity, and whether they’ll have built-in excursions and fun, or if they’ll need to arrange it for themselves. Saying “You will repair and paint storm-damaged buildings for one week” just ain’t gonna cut it for boomers.

Also, let them know what they’re paying for. Of course most volunteer programs do this already, but again, it’s in the details. Saying “in-country support” isn’t sufficient; what kind of support is it, and who’s offering it? Do you have medical staff onsite to respond to the volunteer’s needs? Are there project leaders? Is the staff trained and employed by your organization, by the host organization, or by someone else? And for “weekend excursions” - to where? With whom? Are they guided? Is this optional or part of an all-inclusive package?

I know this sounds confrontational, but the point is, boomers are consumers; if you target a certain age group, you’ve got to cater to their needs.

Let’s take a look at a few organizations that are doing a fantastic job of marketing to, recruiting, and retaining baby boomers as volunteer travelers.


For those interested in environmental conservation, Sierra Club offers trips catered to individuals, students, and yes - boomers. Their upcoming Tahoe National Forest outing is billed “Just for Grandparents and Grandkids,” with accommodation at a lodge, hiking and swimming activities, educational sessions about the history of the area, and even a talent show at the end of the program.


Global Volunteers has an individual page on their website specifically for baby boomer volunteers. With placements available on six continents, volunteers can choose from English teaching, childcare, health care, community development, and other engaging, fulfilling activities.


With construction projects worldwide, Habitat for Humanity welcomes volunteers from all walks of life and with all levels of experience. One popular program is Habitat’s Women Build initiative, a “volunteer program for women who want to learn construction skills and build homes and communities.”

Sarah Palmer from Volunteer Global has researched and educated others about international volunteering for six years. She enjoys working with volunteers adjusting to the return home from their service trips. She Tweets at @VolunteerGlobal and also writes at Volunteer Global.

  Check out Habitat for Humanity Mexico

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