Ken Burnett

The best idea in ageing

By Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing 13 January 2014

An author, consultant and speaker on fundraising, marketing and communications for nonprofit organisations, Ken Burnett is a trustee of the UK Disasters Emergency Committee, and founder and managing trustee of the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration (SOFII). He is also a Commissioner for the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing.


Twenty years from now, 
what will our donors look like?

I expect to live significantly longer than my parents did. You too, most probably, will live a lot longer than yours. Is the ageing of society a problem or an opportunity? Almost certainly it’s both and perhaps it’s a matter of personal choice as to how you view it. I’ve decided I’m going to live to 93 and grow old with glee. Those fortunate enough to be comfortably off in the final third of their lives (and there’s a lot of them) will have time and money to spare and, for at least a decade longer they’ll be looking for useful things to do with it. This, surely, is the best possible prospect for our voluntary sector.

Regrets too few to mention

An article from palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware recently caused a flurry of interest online. From sitting through long evenings with dying patients she’s compiled a list of the five most commonly expressed deathbed regrets:

  • ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’
  • ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’
  • ‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.’
  • ‘I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.’
  • ‘I wish that I had let myself be happier.’

Sad, perhaps, though not really surprising. Regrets are all likely to at least touch on whether in our lifetimes we’ve made any significant difference to anything worthwhile and had enough joy along the way.

Happiness is a worthy goal. Spending time doing what you want with the people you love, that too would figure high with most folk. Spending less time working and more time with friends or on ‘something useful’ seem likely to be important too. Studies indicate that depression can make us physically older by speeding up the ageing process in our cells. Happiness almost certainly has the reverse effect.

We need to commit to getting these things properly balanced in life while there’s time and potential to make changes, so we can look back on a life stocked with fulfilment, enjoyment and achievements, not marked by missed opportunities and regrets.

People all want to make a difference. And our sector can offer them that opportunity. It’s why at the tail end of 2013 with already way too much on my ‘to do’ list I agreed to become one of the eleven commissioners in the newly created Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing. Our remit is to provide long-term strategic thinking about how best the sector can prepare for and adapt to an ageing society in the next 20 years.

Serious donors have always come predominantly from the 50-plus age group. An ageing donor population mean more donors with more time and money. Many worry that living longer means that finite funds have to last longer, but it’s generally a false anxiety. The affluent tend to get more so, not less.

This presents three big opportunities for the voluntary sector:

  • To offer older people enhanced practical ways to make a difference as a donor/volunteer; doing good while adding interest, purpose and fulfilment throughout their extra ‘golden years’ of post work active ageing.
  • To respond to increasing risks of loneliness and depression among older people by offering positive roles and active extra years, and by encouraging older people to help each other as ‘friends in need’, creating a sense of community that makes people feel they belong.
  • To develop leisure, travel and financial services that encourage older people to engage with voluntary activity locally, nationally and overseas.

So we’ll need:

  • To promote volunteering and giving effectively, with more emphasis on the fulfilment and joy it brings.
  • To encourage employers to appreciate and get behind volunteering and donating for their employees.
  • To reduce red tape and make volunteering easy.
  • To fund it properly.

Ageing needs a new image and a new role

Wouldn’t it be great if we could create a new persona: the character of volunteer donor? A life-changer who combines giving time and money because she or he has a bit of both to spare and wants the joy and satisfaction of making a difference in the world?

Lots of ‘new old’ people would enthusiastically welcome the chance, I’m sure. The question is, can the voluntary sector give it to them?

© Ken Burnett 2014

With thanks to Bronnie Ware at