Count Me In: The Future of Volunteerism is Age-Diverse

Volunteer labor has been a substitute for capital since the start of the regional theater movement. Without this subsidy many theaters would be fundamentally different – and some would close. If we don’t develop new ways to value, welcome, and stay engaged with tomorrow’s volunteers, the not-for-profit theater sector’s most valuable subsidy will dry up. StateraArts is thrilled to publish a 4-part series this week by Meg Friedman based on her research COUNT ME IN: Leveraging Generational Differences to Sustain Volunteer Engagement.

Art by Sarah Greenman

Art by Sarah Greenman

Count Me In, Part 3: The Future of Volunteerism is Age-Diverse

by Meg Friedman 

The received wisdom in many not-for-profit theaters is that volunteers will be older (and whiter, and female). This is dangerous. While NEA data from 2005 supports the notion that arts volunteers are older than people volunteering in other parts of the sector, more recent studies suggest that older people are less able to volunteer than in years past.

Older Americans Are Retiring Later – Or Leaving Town When They Do Retire

As the Baby Boomers began aging into retirement, plenty of pundits anticipated a glut of volunteer labor. This enthusiasm has been dampened by the long-term consequences of the Great Recession. And many Boomers anticipate working at least part-time during retirement.

Many, if not most, of the Boomers currently contemplating retirement are pushing the horizon ahead. Those who choose to retire now may be facing significant economic stress, due to damaged savings over the past decade. Phil Santora, Managing Director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, observed to me in 2017 that even when prospective volunteers retired in his community, the cost of living in the Bay Area was so high that they quickly moved to less expensive areas – depleting, rather than adding to, the volunteer population.

Income-Generating Activity Absorbs the Time Millennials and Younger Adults Could Spend Volunteering

Economic insecurity – actual or perceived – may be forcing younger adults to fill otherwise volunteer-able hours with activities that generate income. Driving for a rideshare service, offering services on Fiverr or similar platforms, and more side hustles are increasingly common ways to fill marginal amounts of time. These activities are also flexible – whereas volunteering to usher an 8:00pm performance is decidedly not.  

Younger workers, a great many of whom are freelancers, may also be less frequently exposed to volunteer opportunities through workplace initiatives. Robert McGuire, founding principal of Nation1099, observed that the remarkable growth of gig work, while beneficial to many workers individually, likely undermines pathways to volunteerism that traditional workplaces once fostered. Terry Delavan, longtime theater volunteer and past Board President of the Conference About Volunteers Of Regional Theatres, expressed concern that workplace policies may also limit otherwise interested volunteers – by allowing just 16 hours annually, for instance, rather than making room for more substantial commitments.

Volunteer Programs and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Some theaters are ahead of the pack – but many are playing catch-up when it comes to connecting volunteer programs with the work in equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). Danny Feldman, Executive Artistic Director at the Pasadena Playhouse, shared his candid concerns about creating a more age-diverse and age-inclusive environment, when many existing volunteers at the Playhouse represented a single demographic profile. While it may not be possible for every theater to maintain an age-diverse volunteer corps, confirmation bias and implicit ageism in recruitment and retention practices may undermine the way volunteer programs advance EDI priorities. And volunteer programs should advance EDI priorities, just like every other part of the institution. 

This blog has been adapted from Count Me In: Leveraging Generational Differences To Sustain Volunteer Engagement. For the full report, click HERE.

Tomorrow, StateraArts will publish Count Me In, Part 4: Volunteers Are an Essential Part of Doing Business. Here are the links to Part 1 , Part 2 and Part 4.


Meg Friedman Headshot.jpg

Meg Friedman is a Consultant with AMS Planning & Research, where her work includes strategic planning, facility feasibility, and a range of other research and decision-making services. Meg’s work touches arts and entertainment industry trends ranging from consumer preferences to venue design and the arts workforce. She has created dynamic financial models for small planning studies to multi-million-dollar facilities.

Past projects include the inaugural strategic plan for Assets for Artists, a program of MASS MoCA, and a strategic plan for the New England Foundation for the Arts. Meg has researched trends and best practices in arts venue development for the City of Boise, Idaho, the Kentucky Center for the Arts, and the City of Vaughan, Ontario. She has provided research for a chapter in Routledge’s Performing Arts Center Management and was a contributor to the 11th edition of Stage Management by Lawrence Stern and Jill Gold. Current projects include the planning of a new performing arts center in Sarasota, Florida, and research to define an arts sector investment strategy for The McConnell Foundation in Redding, California.

Meg holds a Master of Arts in Arts Administration from Goucher College and a BA in Theater Design and Production from UCLA. Prior to joining AMS, Meg was an AEA stage manager and worked on Broadway and Off-Broadway, as well as at leading regional theaters. She also served as a moderator for SMNetwork.org, the original free web forum for stage managers.

Meg tweets from @AMSarts and @megf_miles.