Age-friendly volunteering emerging from the pandemic
Formal volunteering shifted in different ways among age groups throughout the pandemic, with informal volunteering rising considerably.
Sarah Wilkinson, Evidence Officer at Ageing Better, reflects on her experiences of volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how volunteering has changed for older people.
Exactly two years ago my weekly volunteering in an English for Speakers of Other Languages class at my local community centre abruptly came to a halt as the lockdown started.
After a brief hiatus I returned once a week to the community centre, now designated as a community support hub. My role changed to distributing emergency food parcels and organising other practical and emotional support to local residents by phone, online and in person. Greater Manchester had been hit hard by the pandemic and our volunteer led classes didn’t fully restart until spring 2021. Many volunteers returned, but some didn’t.
Similar situations were playing out all over the country.
Local communities rallied round as the lockdown started, although our research suggests this waned to some extent as the pandemic continued. Patterns of helping out in communities have been changed by the pandemic. The 2020/21 Community Life Survey showed the highest ever levels of informal helping out, with 33% of adults helping others outside their families at least once a month. In contrast, only 17% of adults took part in formal volunteering, five percentage points lower than any year since the survey began in 2013/14.
It is unsurprising that during the pandemic there was a drop in formal volunteering as voluntary organisations, like my local community centre, had to stop their usual activities. Research commissioned by the Centre for Ageing Better ('Volunteering and community connectedness in the COVID-19 outbreak') showed that people aged over 70 – the age group advised to shield – were twice as likely to stop volunteering as younger age groups. However, volunteering rates for older people were significantly higher than for younger people as the pandemic started. So, even with this drop, people aged over 70 were still more likely than other age groups to continue volunteering.
While only 9% of adults under 50 continued their pre-pandemic volunteering, this rose to 12% of people aged 50-69 and 17% of people over 70. People in these three age groups were equally likely to start new volunteering roles during the pandemic. Patterns of formal volunteering followed those before the pandemic, increasing with both age and financial security. However, the gaps between wealthier and poorer neighbourhoods are much smaller for informal volunteering.
Our research found that people who provided informal support were at least twice as likely to start formal volunteering during the pandemic as those who did not.
There are challenges to reengaging with, or recruiting new, volunteers aged 50 and over. We found that fewer people over 50 said that time was a barrier, but they are more likely than those under 50 to be concerned about the risk of COVID or other health issues, and also to say they preferred to focus on friends and family. Many older people, especially those in communities hard hit by the pandemic, may still be reluctant to mix with other people beyond their circle of family and friends. If changes in service delivery – including providing more support online and by phone – become part of living with the virus, the over one million individuals aged 50-69 who have never been online may feel excluded from new voluntary roles.
Voluntary organisations can build on the groundswell of informal support in neighbourhoods to encourage a greater diversity of people to get or stay involved in their communities. Our research found that people who provided informal support were at least twice as likely to start formal volunteering during the pandemic as those who did not. and much of this helping out is mutual. NCVO report that addressing outdated ideas of “the helpers and the helped” as two separate groups is key to increasing diversity in volunteering.
The incredible diversity of age, ethnicity and experience in my local community centre’s volunteer team contributes greatly to its strength Ageing Better's Helping Out guide suggests five actions to address practical, structural and emotional barriers to inclusive volunteering. These can help other local organisations that involve volunteers take an inclusive approach to engaging older volunteers at this crucial time for communities.
We’re delighted that nationally NCVO will be picking up the baton to take forward our work on age-friendly and inclusive volunteering. They will embed our five actions in their work and develop a group of advocate organisations to analyse barriers, create solutions for the sector, and promote systemic policy change.