Large charities have much to learn from grass-roots groups
In light of our latest review on age-friendly inclusive volunteering, Michael Adamson, CEO at British Red Cross, ponders on how to build greater links with informal community networks.
Michael suggests that making it easier for people in later life to share their time and skills is a top priority of his at the Red Cross.
A report today by the Centre for Ageing Better and the Office for Civil Society challenges the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) to avoid complacency in its approach to older volunteers, and to take action to enable more older people to get involved in our work.
It’s a good challenge. For many charities, older volunteers (defined here as those aged 50 and over) are a mainstay – loyal and committed volunteers who turn up regularly, week after week, month after month, year after year doing huge amounts of work. Without them, we couldn’t function.
But the review’s report warns that relying on future generations to do the same is pretty risky, and it points out that while around a third of older adults are currently involved in volunteering, there are many more that are currently not involved. Those who are poorer, in worse health and/or from some Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities are far less likely to volunteer with charities like mine.
So, what can we do to address these gaps and to make volunteering attractive to future generations of people as they grow older?
The report’s prescription is to make sure the opportunities we offer are age friendly and inclusive. This means addressing practical issues like covering expenses, and supporting people with additional needs, for example mobility issues. Interestingly, the report also argues that we need to put more emphasis on social and emotional factors – ensuring that volunteers feel welcome, are valued, and can get to know the other people they are working with.
...we need to make it easier for people to change how they give their time to our organisations so that people can stay with us as part of our community even when life circumstances change.
We see in our own work, and particularly in our work on loneliness, that volunteering can be a route out of isolation and can foster connection to communities, but the review argues that these social and emotional factors become more important as we go through our lives, and that neglecting them can lead older people to withdraw.
The report also argues strongly that we need to make it easier for people to change how they give their time to our organisations so that people can stay with us as part of our community even when life circumstances change.
This is something that we’ve been thinking about at the Red Cross for some time now. We want to make it easier for people to join with us to share their kindness with others and we’re working all the time to develop new ways for people to work with us – whether signing up as Community Reserve Volunteers, or even volunteering online. For example, our Missing Maps initiative allows people to help to chart remote locations from the comfort of their own home.
The review finds that the barriers to involvement experienced by BAME communities and people on low incomes seem to be far fewer in informal community-based organisations and associations. It argues that by working more closely in our communities with these kinds of organisations we can learn from one another, and we can start to break down the walls between informal ‘helping out’ and other types of volunteering.
The challenge for organisations like mine is how we can open our operations up to make the boundaries between our work and that of others more porous for a greater overall impact.
Learning lessons from our experience in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy, we’re also thinking about how to build greater links with informal community networks. It is these groups and networks that were on the ground, responding, before anyone else. Our efforts became about supporting the work they were doing. The challenge for organisations like mine is how we can open our operations up to make the boundaries between our work and that of others more porous for a greater overall impact.
Improving our response to diverse communities is a personal priority for me at the Red Cross. Making it easier for people in later life to share their time and skills with their communities is a vital part of this.