Retention Across Generations: An Evidence-Based Perspective

By Maggie Mojab and Dr. Candice McDonald

Volunteer fire departments around the country continue to function at high levels despite having to routinely adapt to changing needs and circumstances. However, recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters remain a constant challenge, with department leaders working tirelessly to attract and keep members engaged. Reaching and retaining the younger generation can be especially difficult. Often, leadership programs emphasize the importance of “adjusting to the times” to bridge the generational gap and understand the needs and interests of younger populations. Many departments focus on financial incentives for their volunteers, but with funding presenting its own challenges, department leadership must also look at alternatives. 

Maggie Mojab
Maggie Mojab

What does evidence-based research say about generational differences? Aside from what we see on social media, in our interactions with acquaintances and loved ones, and even with interviews with potential recruits – do we have an accurate idea of what causes a person to not only show up to volunteer but also to be inspired to come back? Monetary-based rewards are often viewed as a force for incentivizing a person to volunteer, but they are not what motivates retention.


Candice McDonald
Candice McDonald

What drives a person to remain at their job involves more than money. There are many other factors that reflect an organization’s turnover rate. If a person is not happy at their job, they will be less committed and more willing to seek a different position that provides them with more personal fulfillment. With the volunteer fire service, where financial incentives are low, other retention factors take on even greater importance. When leadership fails to meet specific needs across generations, productivity diminishes, and staffing numbers decline. Without some of the other important elements, like a positive workplace environment, effective leadership, training opportunities, a sense of community, and professional growth, volunteers are likely to look elsewhere.


Research shows that values differ across generations. Older generations report that work benefits and status are of utmost importance, while younger generations tend to seek out opportunities that offer freedom, autonomy, and contributions to society. However, there is a common value found across all generations, and that is whether or not the organization satisfies an individual’s personal values. 

With differing needs among individuals and across generations, the question leaders must ask is, how can the organization satisfy all volunteers’ interests to reduce turnover and increase recruitment? Two methods to assist with addressing this are by meeting social and esteem needs. Create a culture that offers a sense of belonging to meet individual and social needs. Adults seek relationships that are positive and rewarding. Studies on individuals in late adulthood show that healthy relationships are the strongest indicators of living a long life.  While exercise, diet, environmental toxins, and other risk factors all play a vital role in healthy living, positive human relationships with others impact a person’s happiness the most. This means prioritizing activities and events that strengthen social bonds among your volunteers can have a big impact on their happiness, which affects recruitment and retention at a core level. Being a member of a volunteer fire service organization provides a social connection which enhances an individual’s mental and emotional health.


To meet the esteem needs of volunteers, offer professional development opportunities that are beneficial inside and outside of the fire department. The volunteer fire service is in a unique position to serve as an apprenticeship program for young volunteers. Data on younger generations show individuals are likely to experience workplace satisfaction later in life and choose to stay with an organization for long periods of time the earlier they’re exposed to training. Moreover, the value of positive relationships can be instilled in younger generations by modeling these behaviors. This also means that it is possible to retain younger volunteers long-term by ensuring that the training provided at your department is transferrable to other areas of their life. It’s important to get members to think about how they can take home the information they learn at your department and share it with the world. If a volunteer can find space in your department that allows them to grow professionally AND personally by learning something challenging and new, they can show up to the other agencies they are involved in with a sense of confidence, adequacy, and career satisfaction. These are feelings that are cultivated by engagement within your department.

Acknowledging generational differences doesn’t necessarily have to symbolize a challenge; rather, it can represent a simple need for a more inclusive environment that invites shifts in your department’s culture to create more space for retention and recruitment. Understanding the differences and similarities in personal values across generations and how engaging volunteers on a deeper level using existing resources can help with recruitment and retention is a big step. 

As you work towards addressing generational needs and bolstering your department’s recruitment and retention, the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has resources to help. There are a number of training courses in the Virtual Classroom, including a four-part series on Training the Next Generation, a multi-course track for new department recruits, and training to help departments shift to a more inclusive environment. In addition, the NVFC offers tools and resources for recruitment and retention through the free Make Me A Firefighter campaign. Learn more at 


Maggie Mojab is a program coordinator at the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), where she oversees all virtual education and training. She started her nonprofit career at the Society of Fire Protection Engineers and has eight years of experience developing and executing programs, projects, and events. She is currently enrolled in a Master of Clinical Psychology program at Pepperdine University.

Dr. Candice McDonald is the deputy CEO of the NVFC and has two decades of experience as a firefighter, EMT, inspector, and instructor. She holds an associate degree in health and human services, a bachelor’s degree in organizational management, a master’s degree in organizational leadership, and a doctorate in business administration with a specialty in homeland security.

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