It the same week, the press debated whether older volunteers are being asked to take on increasingly arduous tasks and in new, customer-focused ways. A few days earlier, even the Hay Festival questioned whether future members of ‘the reserve army of little old ladies’ would want to volunteer in the ways they do now.

Volunteering and an ageing society are clearly very much a part of public discourse.

The benefits of volunteering are well known, both for the volunteer and the cause or the individual beneficiary. We all want more of it, it seems, but we’re worried about whether it can remain vibrant, whether old folks will have the time, and young people, the inclination, whether men will get involved in care and older women will get fed up with the demands placed on them.

In the discussion, we argued about the changing motivations and opportunities for volunteering—and what this would mean for charities.  So, for example, what one person described as ‘The Gold Standard’ in volunteers—available regularly, reliably, and for many years—might be replaced by new standards: volunteers who give their time when they can, are both reliable and self-reliant, who volunteer their expertise and not just their time, who offer a very personalised service and who see their volunteering as part of a portfolio of interests and a means of building new skills and contacts at all stages of their lives. Many of them may also see their volunteering as an expression of mutuality and interdependence, and less as part of a ‘gift-relationship’.

If any of this comes true, what will the new ‘ideal volunteer’ look like? And will we need the current brokers of volunteering—the existing charities—in a world where volunteers can offer their services directly to beneficiaries through social media sites? Volunteers may have different motivations during their life course. Will we see the young career builder, the older work extender, the community activist, the community networker, the male early-retiree, the older woman in part time work, the squeezed middle-aged and so on?

In a world where opportunities and customer experience are increasingly tailored, recruiting, motivating, retaining and rewarding volunteers will need to become more personalised. And what we ask of them, in a world in which services are increasingly tailored to their beneficiary group, will need to change.

At the end, I concluded that volunteering will remain vibrant. The need to be part of a community, to give back, to learn new skills, to fill the space left by full time work and family responsibilities will remain. But to make it a great experience for the volunteers, to ensure that charities’ missions are delivered and that the beneficiaries really do get a personalised, excellent service—for that, we’ve some way to go.

 

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