Making the most of baby boomer volunteers

This guest blog post is written by my colleague Dr Eddy Hogg, whose research focuses on volunteering:

This week sees the launch of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing’s report Age of Opportunity: putting the ageing society of tomorrow on the agenda of the voluntary sector today. The report begins by noting that:

The country is experiencing a huge demographic shift. By 2033 nearly a quarter of the population will be over 65 years old, tipping the balance between the number of working people and those receiving pensions as birth rates decline. The scale and nature of such changes will present both a significant challenge and an opportunity for charities, funders, social enterprises and other voluntary organisations.

The baby boomers who are retiring now are not only the largest group of retirees we have ever seen, they are also the healthiest.  Many of those retiring now can look forward to a decade or more of fit, active and healthy life.  Volunteering is one of a wide range of activities that people might take part in at this stage of life, either as a new activity or as a continuation of a lifetime of community engagement.

Lynne Berry (chair of the Commission) urges charities to go out and make contact with potential volunteers, seeking out those with particular skills, and suggesting that the voluntary sector should:

“Act now to take advantage of the huge opportunities a changing demography will create.”

My research shows  that people are more likely to engage if they are asked by a peer, friend or family member. Volunteering in older age is usually an extremely social activity, so this outreach to needs to come from across the organisation, by both paid staff and other volunteers.

Good volunteer managers realise that older volunteers bring with them a complex life history, which may or may not have included giving away their time for free. Understanding the prior experiences that older volunteers have had will allow charity managers to understand what new skills and passions can be brought to the organisation. If volunteers’ needs are understood and their engagement in a suitable role is supported during the transition to retirement, then those who only did occasional or event-based volunteering may be supported to take on important roles in retirement – such as helping with fundraising, serving as an organisation’s treasurer or secretary or helping to manage a site.

Lynne Berry is right to urge organisations to search out the specialist skills that older people have, but my research also shows that charities need to understand that while some people are motivated by a desire to build on what they can already do, other older volunteers are keen to develop new knowledge and abilities.  While one retired school teacher may be delighted to continue using her professional skills, another may never want to see a classroom or a lesson plan again!  If charities can understand these nuances, and harness the needs and enthusiasm of fit and healthy retirees, then the baby boomers’ retirement offers an unprecedented opportunity for all who work in, and care about, our  voluntary sector.


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