In the last couple of weeks I’ve been spending time developing an e-portfolio, which essentially showcases my resume online with expanded and interactive content. It’s been a really valuable exercise to go through for a number of reasons. One reason has been that I’ve realized just how much volunteering I’ve done even in the past six or eight months, especially in terms of speaking engagements and other work which I would consider “informal” volunteering. I didn’t even note everything down that I actually was involved in, but still I felt pretty good about what I listed there. I somehow fit a lot in!

Reviewing my volunteering activity also got me thinking of all the amazing individuals I know in Victoria around my age doing passionate volunteer work themselves. You know we have been saying, some of us, that Generation X are the “worst” volunteers but when I pulled out the data again to review it, the Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating 2010 (which came out last year) actually shows that people between the ages of 35 to 44 in Canada volunteer at a rate of 54% – that’s higher than the Canadian average for all age groups – which came in at 47% – and the second highest rate for all age groups over 15 years of age. (Because I know you’ll ask, the highest was 15 to 24 years of age, volunteering at a rate of 58%).

And even if we look at the number of hours volunteered per year, the 35 to 44 age group gave 353 million hours. Not a bad showing overall, coming in third as an age group behind 45 to 54 year olds (the best: 409 million per year) and the 65 and older group (second best: 372 million). (Which I think is significant because everyone still thinks that older seniors give the most hours and they actually don’t.)

So why the disconnect even in my own mind about how contributory my generation is? If I had to hazard a guess (and I’m sure someone else has written about this officially somewhere) it’s that my generation loves to create and carry out informal volunteer opportunities, not fit into the mould of what is already available formally at nonprofit organizations. We don’t see Generation X volunteering at our agencies a lot, and so we think (and say) that we are instead home with our kids, or supporting aging parents, or spending time building our careers and whatnot. And yes, we’re doing all those things, but we’re also out in our communities, making them stronger in very informal ways. We are still contributing as volunteers, just in more informal ways.

What are we doing, you  might ask? We organize conferences, events and meetups on topics we’re passionate about, carry out speaking engagements, do information interviews in person or through Skype, contribute to professional associations, arrange neighbourhood gatherings, watch each other’s children and more. (Tell me what else in the comments…) All as volunteers, but all “off the grid” of formal volunteering. Even sitting on boards can be unseen volunteer work in a way and many of us are doing that too.

The Canada Survey sees Generation X volunteering – because it captures both informal and formal volunteer activities – where some of the rest of society doesn’t.

So don’t worry, Generation X, we’re doing just fine. With all that spare time in our lives that we don’t actually have, we’re still making space for volunteering in our own way. But this does beg a few questions for those organizations who sit around and wonder where Generation X is and thinking that they aren’t good volunteers. Questions like:

  • What are you doing to engage volunteers informally as well as formally with your organization? (You know, those “consulting” volunteers…)
  • How easy is it for Generation X to volunteer at your organization? (Ask a Gen X to tell you, don’t assume)
  • When is the last time that you spoke to someone from Generation X about why they don’t volunteer at your organization and what they see are some ideas for how they could?

With the rise of skilled volunteering, knowledge philanthropists (I’ll talk about that in a future blog post) and volunteers that look like consultants, organizations shouldn’t do anything but ask themselves these questions – for all generations they are looking to engage.

And for all Gen Xers who aren’t going through the motions of developing an e-portfolio like me, sit down with your iPad or even your pen and paper (!) and make a list of everything you’ve done since January as a volunteer – both formally and informally. Share it on Facebook with your friends and then pat yourself on the back. I bet you did more than you think. (Thank you!)