Engaging older volunteers during Covid-19

Lucie Mitchell on how voluntary organisations are rethinking how they work in order to reach out to older people safely and how volunteering can help people looking to change career direction or just to give back.



Engaging in voluntary work can be of enormous benefit to over-50s looking to change jobs or careers, especially when faced with so much competition in the jobs market right now.

Not only can volunteering boost confidence, but it can help to develop new or transferable skills as well as provide an alternative route into employment.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced many older people to put volunteering on hold, due to the risks involved. Safety is an extremely important factor to consider in the current climate, especially for older people volunteering in frontline roles. As a result, many voluntary groups have seen a drop in the number of volunteers available to offer support.

“With everybody over the age of 70, and with health conditions, asked to take additional measures to socially isolate at the start of the crisis, many organisations had to ask people to step away from their usual volunteering roles,” comments Rachel Monaghan, programme manager at the Centre for Ageing Better.

The financial impact of Covid on charities

The pandemic has also caused significant financial difficulties for many voluntary groups and organisations. According to November’s Covid-19 Voluntary Sector Impact Barometer, by Nottingham Trent University, NCVO and Sheffield Hallam University, 38% of charities and community groups expected their financial position to deteriorate over the next month, while at the same time, over half are reporting an increase in the demand for their services.

“The financial impact has been well-documented with far-reaching consequences,” remarks Ed Mayo, CEO of social enterprise Pilotlight, who’s latest survey also highlights a ‘scissors effect’ of rising needs and falling income amongst many charities. “It is good practice for charities to operate with financial reserves, but the pandemic has wiped out reserves for many of them.”

Staffing levels have been impacted too, especially for voluntary organisations that are particularly dependent on older volunteers.

“Two thirds of people in their 50s and above usually make some form of contribution to their community – and are key to sustaining the work of many organisations,” says Monaghan. “There have been instances of younger people offering to volunteer where older volunteers have been asked to step away – perhaps people who have been placed on furlough – but they may not have been able to sustain their involvement, or may not be able to sustain it in future.”

Michelle Wright, CEO of social enterprise Cause 4, points to research by NFP Synergy, which found that whilst 16% of 55 to 64-year-olds volunteered in November 2019, only 9% did in May 2020. “Covid-19 has accelerated a trend towards increased volunteering in younger age brackets, and decreased volunteering for older people,” she comments.

Community spirit

However, the pandemic has also triggered a surge in community spirit, and there still appears to be a desire amongst older people to volunteer their expertise. Pilotlight’s survey revealed that one in five workers and job seekers over the age of 55 are currently volunteering using their professional skills, while a further 43% said they would like to do so.

“Charity leaders often value the pro bono professional support that experienced workers can bring more than general ad hoc volunteering,” remarks Mayo.

So how can voluntary organisations support, reassure and engage older volunteers in the wake of the pandemic?

“Design agile volunteering methods that can be done at home,” suggests Wright. “Ask volunteers to call or write to supporters or beneficiaries, or to support office work depending on areas of expertise.  Some innovative charities are allowing volunteers to continue supporting without risking contact with people outside their home,” she adds.

“An example of this is St John’s Ambulance, which made all training available online for both staff and volunteers. Where normal volunteering services do remain, work can be done to reduce risk and therefore break down barriers faced by older volunteers. Throughout 2020, cross-sector goodwill has been extraordinary, with collaborations leading to innovative solutions for many voluntary sector organisations.”

Covid initiatives

Initiatives like Furlonteer.com have sprung up in response to Covid, a scheme that was originally set up early on in the crisis to match furloughed workers to voluntary organisations, but has now been extended to any skilled professional wishing to volunteer and share their expertise.

The Centre for Ageing Better has also produced a ‘Helping Out’ guide, designed to help voluntary organisations support and engage over 50s volunteers.

“Our grantees have told us that taking an age-friendly and inclusive approach enables them to be flexible, person-centred and focused on people’s strengths – all of which help to break down barriers and support participation,” says Monghan. “As local restrictions are still in place, many organisations continue to adapt their work and how they involve older volunteers. By using innovative, inclusive approaches, older volunteers have been able to maintain their contributions – albeit in a different way – which is important to them.”

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