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Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice. We welcome your comments and feedback.
Nonprofit organizations are often dependent on volunteers, and among adults 65 and older volunteering rates have increased from 14.3% in 1974 to 23.5% in 2005. Some of this increase can be attributed to earlier retirement, leading senior citizens to be more active.1 For nonprofits, understanding the dynamics of senior volunteerism can help organizations utilize seniors in a way that furthers their mission while offering a positive volunteering experience.
Several challenges can be unique to senior volunteers. First, some volunteers may have physical limitations such as health, sight, or hearing problems. Some seniors may be unfamiliar with or resistant to newer technology. An additional problem can occur with volunteers who “age in place,” which means they joined the organization at a younger age and have lost some abilities. When the organization feels loyal to the volunteer it can be difficult to confront this issue.2 All of these concerns should be taken into account.
However, the benefits senior volunteers bring to an organization are also important to consider. Seniors can often apply skills from their former jobs to a nonprofit. Their skills may encompass fields such as accounting, fundraising, or foreign languages, and they often will need little training in these areas. Seniors are also the most likely age group to volunteer for 100 or more hours per year.3 This can be particularly beneficial to organizations, as most senior volunteers are retired and therefore available to volunteer during office hours, a time that is often difficult to fill. Additionally, as noted in an earlier Research Friday post, some research indicates that with the current aging of America’s population, including the Baby Boomer generation, there will soon be an increase in the number of seniors available and willing to volunteer. Finally, senior volunteers may have developed extensive social and professional networks over the course of their lives and careers, which could lead to more donors and volunteers for the organization.4
Volunteering also provides rewards to the volunteers. Research shows that a decline in well-being that the elderly often experience can be linked to a reduction of activity, but a productive activity such as volunteering can counter this effect. In fact, volunteering has been linked to increased emotional and physical health among older adults. Some research has shown a link between volunteering and increased longevity.5 One study found that 75% of senior volunteers said volunteering improved their feelings about themselves and 32.2% believed that volunteering had improved their mental health.6 Utilizing senior volunteers provides benefits to both the organization and the volunteers.
Recruitment is an extremely important piece of managing a volunteer program that includes older adults. According to the Independent Sector, more seniors would volunteer if organizations only asked them.7 In fact, seniors are five times more likely to volunteer if they are asked. Consider visiting churches, senior centers, retirement organizations, fraternal organizations, or homes for the elderly. For some organizations, it may be helpful to partner with the local chapter of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program. Many retired volunteers do not identify as “senior citizens,” so methods of recruiting for other age groups may work well to recruit retirees also.
When speaking to new volunteers, one should not make assumptions about their abilities. If something is unclear, it is best to ask volunteers what they can do.8 It may be a good idea to ask volunteers what they would like doing, rather than assigning them to something they may not be comfortable with. Most importantly, the organization needs to be willing to provide support to help the volunteers do their work. This may be as simple as providing written instructions to a volunteer who has difficulty hearing. If the volunteer has been retired for a period of time, they may need to be trained on new office technology or on their new tasks. By providing this training, the organization gains a committed volunteer. Overall, the best thing a volunteer manager can do is try to understand and build a close relationship with the volunteers.
However, there may come a time when a senior volunteer is no longer capable of fulfilling his or her duties. This can be difficult when such volunteers have been loyal to the organization for a long time or do not see the changes in themselves. It is important for the volunteer manager to pay attention to any signs of fatigue and to talk with the volunteer about his or her strength. If the volunteer is no longer capable of carrying out his or her duties, consider offering a different assignment. Most importantly, the organization should not ignore a bad situation, but be willing to initiate a difficult conversation with the volunteer to express concerns. Sometimes this gives the volunteer a chance to say that they have been experiencing the same concerns, which can be a relief. Eventually, the time may come for the volunteer and the organization to part ways. Consider the possibility of having a retirement celebration to honor their service to the organization.
Senior volunteers present some unique challenges to an organization, but they also bring many unique benefits. Organizations should carefully consider whether they can meet the needs of this population or not. Often, if an organization is willing to make adjustments, they can form a mutually beneficial relationship with senior volunteers.
Kelly is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, with a bachelor's degree in English and Anthropology. She is currently a student in the Master of Nonprofit Studies program at ASU, planning to graduate in December 2012. She also works in the Prevention Research Center on ASU's Tempe campus as a data manager.
^  Independent Sector. "America's Senior Volunteers." 2000.
^  Lee, Jarene Frances and Julia M. Catagnus. "Special Situation: Older Volunteers/Aging in Place." What We Learned (the Hard Way) about Supervising Volunteers: An Action Guide for Making Your Job Easier. Energize, Inc., 1999. 108.
^  Corporation for National and Community Service. "Volunteering in America 2011 Research Highlights." 2011.
^  National Volunteer and Philanthropy Center. Doing Good Well: Engaging Senior Volunteers: A Guide for Non-profit Organizations. Singapore, 2007.
^  Corporation for National and Community Service
^  Newman, Sally, Jyotsna Vasudev and Roland Onawola. "Older Volunteers' Perceptions of Impacts of Volunteering on Their Psychological Well-being." Journal of Applied Gerontology 4(2) (1985): 123-127.
^  Independent Sector. "America's Senior Volunteers." 2000.
^  National Volunteer and Philanthropy Center
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Click here to read Carlton Yoshioka's "Senior Arizona volunteers -- how do they stack up against the rest of the nation? "