Old people dancing

Volunteering and the elderly exodus

We learnt last week that the National Trust may have to leave rooms in its historic properties unstaffed as it warns that retirees no longer want to volunteer to be tour guides and manage the properties. ‘Older people are travelling around the world, they are doing the babysitting,’ says the National Trust’s director general, Dame Helen Ghosh.

The Trust has 7,000 employees but 60,000 volunteers—so if volunteers no longer find it interesting, that’s a serious problem. It is looking into using more CCTV to cover the areas that it doesn’t have enough volunteers for.

This moment of realisation is likely to come to a lot of charities. Many rely on retirees to volunteer and provide services, and have for years, but if the baby boomer generation that is retiring now has different priorities, then charities need to adapt to that. The value of older people’s volunteering is currently estimated at £10 billion a year—a big deal for the sector, but something that many charities take for granted will always be there.

In NPC’s Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing, we looked at how charities should adapt to an ageing demographic. Part of this is around realising that their volunteering offer needs to change. If charities are now competing with grandchildren or holidays or longer careers for people’s time, what can they offer instead? It might be more flexible, skilled volunteering roles, or roles which look more like consultancy-type internships.

Charities need to be clearer about what volunteering brings people—many people love it because of the social networks it brings, especially those that miss the contact they had at work. Currently much of the volunteer workforce is female, so what can charities do to attract more men into volunteering roles? This last question is especially pressing, given that older men are more likely to be lonely.

This is also relevant to the relationship between charities and philanthropists—many philanthropists give time as well as money. If a philanthropist wants to deepen their relationship with a charity, volunteering can be a great way to do it. Those charities that are able to provide good volunteering opportunities that allow a philanthropist to use their skills may find that there are a lot of rewards in store.

It’s also important for those philanthropists who are thinking about the future sustainability of a charity. If, in fifteen years’ time, the National Trust has not found a way to improve its volunteer offer, and loses a quarter or half of its volunteers as a result, what will happen?

And this may well be the thin edge of the wedge: the National Trust is a big enough name to appear on the front page of The Independent, but how many more charities are seeing their volunteer numbers shrink away?

There aren’t many easy answers out there. Without volunteers, charities will need a lot more funding or will have to find some way to provide the same work with depleted resources. If you are funding a charity that heavily uses volunteers, now is the time to start asking questions about how they are adjusting to the baby boomers enjoying a lot more me-time.

A version of this blog was first published by Spears Magazine as part of our philanthropy series.