How to help ensure older people can make the most of volunteering opportunities
Too many older people are missing out on the diverse benefits volunteering brings for both the volunteers and communities involved.
With the Big Help Out coming up, our Programme Manager Rachel Monaghan explores how volunteering opportunities can be made accessible to all ages.
Thousands of organisations are coming together to give everyone the chance to help out in their local communities to mark the King’s Coronation next week. The Big Help Out is supported by some of the UK’s biggest volunteer organisations, including the Scouts and the Royal Voluntary Service, and has been created to raise awareness of volunteering and provide opportunities for people to make a difference in their communities. The event recognises the importance of volunteering and already there is enormous enthusiasm to get involved. However, there are often barriers that stop people from taking up volunteering opportunities. Millions are expected to get involved on May 8 across the country. But the opportunity must not be missed to turn this day of community spirit into a longer-term surge in volunteering, which is one of the event’s key goals.
The latest Community Life Survey from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) reports the lowest ever numbers of UK adults engaged in volunteering with only 16% of respondents volunteering formally at least once a month. There has been a particularly noticeable drop in the number of people aged 50-64 years old who are engaged in volunteering. Only 27% of 50-64 year olds participated in formal volunteering once a month in 2021-2, six percentage points lower than the number in 2020-21. This means that more 50-64 year olds are missing out on the improved wellbeing and sense of purpose that volunteering provides, with people who help out in their community tending to be happier and have a better quantity and quality of relationships. And communities are also missing out on the time, experience and knowledge of older volunteers.
Ageing Better’s previous work with DCMS identified the barriers that prevent many people from turning their enthusiasm to participate in their community to active contributions. The main factor at play is not a prospective volunteer’s age, but their health, income and ethnicity. And this is particularly evident in formal volunteering opportunities.
Some of the barriers to getting involved, such as the cost of participation or physical accessibility, affect everyone but can be a particular issue as we get older. Meanwhile, emotional barriers to participation are more exclusive to older people. The fear of being rejected, concerns about ageism and the sense of not being welcome or valued can all play a part in stopping older people from volunteering.
The older population is growing. But it is also becoming more ethnically diverse, and a growing number of people are getting older with life-long health conditions. With these being the groups that face the most barriers to getting involved in their communities, more action is needed to support these people to give back across their life to avoid the pool of volunteers shrinking. And this is why our work on ensuring that all opportunities for community contribution are ‘age-friendly’ and inclusive is so important.
Organisations should take time to really listen to their volunteers and embrace their diverse backgrounds and strengths.
The Centre for Ageing Better has identified five actions that organisations can take to get a wider range of people involved in volunteering.
1. Connect and listen
Every volunteer brings different skills and experience to the table. And each volunteer has different life circumstances too, which can impact their involvement. Organisations should take time to really listen to their volunteers and embrace their diverse backgrounds and strengths. A key part of this is staying in contact with volunteers, considering how circumstances might change and how people can be empowered to do what matters to them.
2. Focus on what matters to people
Not everybody will see their contributions as ‘volunteering’. Similarly, not everybody engages in volunteering solely to give to their community – social connections can play a big part in people’s decisions to get involved. It is important to recognise the different interests that people have and to celebrate everyone’s successes and stories. This could mean framing people’s contributions as ‘helping out’ or ‘giving time’ as people may not identify with the term ‘volunteering’.
3. Play to people’s strengths
We all have different abilities, aspirations and needs; it is important to offer people the chance to volunteer in a way which suits their circumstances. For example, organisations can design tasks or activities that people can dip in and out of, instead of having to commit to formal volunteering for a period of time. Volunteers should be supported to be ‘co-creators’ in the tasks they are engaged in.
4. Remove barriers
There are often barriers that prevent people’s willingness to volunteer being translated into active contributions. Organisations can overcome this by focusing on what emotional, physical or practical support the individual needs to get involved. Obstacles can be minimised by making the induction process as simple as possible and checking in with volunteers throughout their time with the organisation. Importantly, organisations should also consider how they can engage groups who are currently not involved in their work.
5. Be flexible
Organisations should create a range of opportunities to get involved to suit different circumstances, interests and levels of commitment. Some people might only be able to volunteer in short chunks of time, while others may want to make a regular, larger contribution – what matters is that people can do what they can. Finally, try out different ways of communicating with people – some may prefer face-to-face conversations and others may need support to get online.
As King Charles finally gets his coronation next month at the age of 74, what more fitting way to mark the occasion then for his generational peers to be able to be fully involved with the celebrations. Big Help Out will provide a focal point to turn community spirit into real action, but it is vital that we consider how we can make volunteering opportunities age-friendly and inclusive.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) is continuing our work to explore how more organisations can take the five steps above. The task is now for organisations to support people of all ages and backgrounds to contribute to their community not just for one day but hopefully as part of ongoing and regular commitment.