Volunteering is for life, not just for young people

There has been less emphasis on encouraging volunteering among older age groups compared with young people in recent years. Why and how should we change this?
Heather Sturgess

There has been a lot of focus in recent years on getting young people into volunteering with the National Citizen Service and vInspired focused on helping young people to make a difference. However, there has been less emphasis on encouraging volunteering among older age groups, despite the valuable skills this group has to offer.

Admittedly, capitalising on the skills of older age groups or retired volunteers is not a new thing – when I volunteered at a local Citizens Advice Service many of the volunteers were of retirement age, and used their skills developed in employment (such as a career in finance) to the advantage of the advice service. Indeed, when people reach retirement they often look for volunteering opportunities to fill some of the spare time they have available.

However, when we asked the public in October 2016 if they have volunteered in the last three months younger people were more likely to have volunteered. 16-24 year olds were the age group with the highest level of volunteering at 33%, this compared to 17% of 55-64 year olds and 22% of 65 year olds and over. These age groups often have less time to volunteer due to work commitments, and caring for both older and younger family members. However, some organisations have decided to focus on the contributions and value of these age groups as volunteers.

The Give More Get More Fund has identified a gap in the market for volunteers over the age of 50 in the UK. Inspired by the National Citizens Service, an intensive volunteering scheme aimed at young people, they are looking to start a similar volunteering system, aimed at an older demographic. This is already taking place in the USA through a scheme called Senior Corp.

The USA Senior Corp scheme connects people aged over 55 with organisations and individuals, helping them to use their skills to become mentors, coaches or companions. One of the Senior Corp projects is a ‘foster grandparent’ volunteer programme where volunteers’ help children to learn to read and provide tutoring as well as mentoring for teenagers.[1] The scheme emphasises the benefits that volunteers receive from giving their time. Similar to the American scheme the Give More Get More Fund is supporting organisations who are looking to develop intensive volunteering placements for people during or as they approach retirement. One of the projects that has been set up involves older volunteers supporting young disabled people who are transitioning from full time education to their next stages in life. [2]

Focusing on encouraging this age group to volunteer is not a new initiative. The Experience Corps project under the Blair government aimed to encourage people over 50 to volunteer for community-led projects. However, the projects were criticised by established voluntary organisations for not building upon existing infrastructure and government funding was pulled when it failed to meet its volunteer recruitment targets.[3] Nevertheless, with the right strategy these age groups can provide a valuable resource.

Innovative organisations in different parts of the world are zeroing in on the contributions of these age groups and their place in society, to combat issues such as mental health and sustainable energy. In Zimbabwe ‘The Friendship bench Project’ has trained older women in communities as lay health workers called ‘grandmothers’ to listen to peoples mental health problems.[4] Traditionally, elderly women acted as counsellors for the younger people in Zimbabwe and so the project has used this cultural norm for the success of the friendship bench scheme. In a country where there are only 13 psychiatrists but one in four people suffer from some form of mental health problem, the project offers an invaluable service.[5]

In India, Barefoot College trains grandmothers and women in rural communities to become solar engineers.[6] These women are chosen because of their strong roots in their villages. The project helps to bring sustainable solar power to rural areas as well as to empower the women with skills and a living.

Across the world organisations and volunteering schemes are utilising the valuable contributions of older age groups. Focusing on encouraging volunteering among these age groups can offer great benefits to society and is a valuable volunteering source that should not be neglected.

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