Making a difference: older volunteers as community builders

The Coalition Government is committed to promoting unpaid voluntary work in the ‘Big Society’ agenda; albeit in a new regime of budget cuts, service cuts and demands of more for less, including from unpaid volunteers.  One important element of Big Society is social action, encouraging and enabling people to play a more active part in society. To date the social action of young people is targeted through the National Citizen Service, but older adults, especially women, make up a significant component of those who give time helping others.

Older people are typically characterized as recipients of care who make ever increasing demands on over stretched and underfunded social care services. But older adults, especially women, make up a significant component of those who give time through volunteering for organisations. Gerontologists identify older women as “kin keepers”, sustaining the family, but research also shows that they give time as volunteers to organizations and community groups and they also act as “neighbourhood keepers”, vigilant about the changing fortunes of the localities in which they have invested much of their lives.  For older men and women, the neighbourhood may be even more important than for younger people.

In my recent work I have sought to understand more about the qualitative experience of volunteering, to understand the motivation for, and meanings attached to, volunteering. Volunteering usually combines elements of self interest and giving to others:
*‘Give to each other’ (mutual aid) – people volunteer to help people like them, wanting to put something back in their community or to an organisation that has helped them in the past;
*‘Give alms’ (Philanthropy) – helping people different to them out of a sense of altruism. They feel fortunate and wanted to make a difference;
*‘Get by’ – people volunteered in reaction to a personal need or as a result of an individual life event like retirement or bereavement. This is volunteering as a form of self-help;
*‘Get on’ – people who volunteer as a way of developing new skills and experiences that are valued in the labour market to help them get a job or change career. This is volunteering for career development.
Our study found that volunteering plays a valuable role in developing social capital within communities. Volunteering enhances the levels of active citizenship and community spirit in an area and helps people build up a sense of belonging to a place. On a personal level volunteering also develops an individual’s self-confidence and provides a structure for their lives – getting them out of the house and interacting within the community.
The role of older adults in community building will the focus of our first seminar on December 8th, to find out more and register please visit: guidance/collaboration/seminars/archive/older-citizens-seminar.aspx


5 Responses to “Blog”

  1. Eddy Hogg December 8, 2011 at 10:57 am #

    How Volunteering Fits into People’s Lives

    Participation in the Big Society and engagement in local decision making through the policies of Localism have been key themes to the first 18 months of Coalition rule. With cuts to public services, there is an expectation that individuals and communities will work together to provide for needs that the state once met. The rhetorical expectation from Whitehall is that all adults should be part of this.

    Yet how realistic a proposition is this? Even if we unrealistically assume that all individuals will be keen and motivated to participate, to what extent will individuals be able to participate in these formal structures of local governance and delivery?

    My research looks at how individuals engage in formal volunteering through organisations and groups, and has analysed how different groups of individuals participate in different ways;

    ***Some adults are continuous volunteers, giving time and effort to organisations throughout their lives, potentially in different ways at different times, depending on their circumstances. Take Eric. Eric has been involved in Scouting for all of his adult life. However, for a period when he was working on the road a lot, he couldn’t lead a troop himself on a regular basis, so instead took on a managerial role. In retirement, while Eric still occasionally helps hands-on with the young members, most of his volunteering is at a managerial level, helping secure funds for the organisation and support the running of local groups.

    ***Other adults are serial volunteers, giving time and effort to formal volunteering as and when they can, but taking breaks when life gets in the way. Grace is one such volunteer; when her children were very young, and she wasn’t in paid employment, Grace helped to run a playgroup which her children attended, and later a swimming club which they attended. At this time she also volunteering with first a local mobile library and then with a meals on wheels service. However, her divorce lead to her having to cease all volunteering, and for a decade she had to devote all of her time and energy into bringing up her children and being in paid employment. As her children grew older, and having remarried, Grace resumed volunteering, joining local voluntary committees advising the council on health and social care. She left these panels when retiring from paid employment, but six months later joined and older persons’ advocacy organisation in her home town, where she now volunteers as and when relevant cases come up.

    ***The third category of volunteer is trigger volunteers, who are those individuals who begin formal volunteering for the first time in older age. Jack, for example, struggled to balance his paid employment with spending time with his wife and children, and as such did not undertake any formal volunteering until his retirement. However, on his retirement he had a plan to begin volunteering, and though his church group, a local homeless charity and in a local school, he has now been a regular formal volunteering throughout the fifteen years of his retirement.

    Many individuals do not volunteer at all, and these are absent from these three categories. For those who do volunteer, as these examples show, individuals have to balance different roles, and volunteering is often low on the list of priorities. Leaving decision making and public service delivery in the hands of individuals whose other commitments dictate the time they can give to volunteering is therefore dangerous.

  2. LDPerko December 21, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    On 8 December I attended the Economic & Social Research Council, Northumbria University and Institute for Volunteering Research policy seminar on “The role of Older Citizens in Community Building”, hosted at Northumbria University. The first in the series, the event had a definite air of excitement and there was a buzz about it as it was well attended with delegates ranging from academics, representatives from charitable and voluntary organisations, local authorities and volunteers from across the north east.

    The strong message that came through was the importance of the “older volunteer” in terms of the added value of the life skills people bring to organisations and their communities as volunteers, and equally the satisfaction individuals themselves gain when they undertake a volunteering role. What’s more, the research evidence clearly demonstrates the personal impact on people who volunteer which can have a significantly positive effect on health and well being, their demeanour and family life.

    Taking into account the current economic climate in the UK along with the recession and major legislative proposals around government’s Big Society (the Localism Bill, the Open Public Services and NHS reforms), this currently poses enormous challenges for both Third and Public sector organisations in particular around the future delivery of public services.

    This Research series provides the opportunity to further explore how best to promote and share the constructive outcomes presented in the findings and case studies produced as a result of the research. This will help inform and influence policy and decision makers at the local and national level, both operationally and strategically, of the importance of the role “older volunteers” can play in public service provision.

    In the final part of the session following six challenges were highlighted. They intrinsically link to the points above and warrant further consideration in order to gain a better understanding the role and opportunities of “older volunteers”:

    Telling the Story – whilst we know and recognise the value of “older people”, there needs to be a robust evidence base to demonstrate the added value to wider partners and practitioners.

    The Big Society/Localism agenda – the theory behind localism is that there shouldn’t be barriers to everyone being able to have their say and more work needs to be done around how through volunteering you can increase the voice of “older people” in the localism agenda.

    How do we make co-production work better? This is a term widely used but perhaps not very well understood; we need to make this clearer and manage perceptions and interpretations of volunteers and statutory agencies.

    Break down the barriers to volunteering – by investing in volunteer management to ensure it is robust and a co-ordinated approach is taken.

    Understanding volunteering as part of a wider engagement issue. Currently at the national level volunteering sits separately.

    To continue sustained activities for volunteers and effective volunteer management.

    I look forward to further debate on the subject of volunteering as it unfolds in the “Big Society”!

    Suzanne Martin
    Senior Research Assistant, Centre for Public Policy
    Northumbria University
    9 December 2011

  3. irene hardill March 22, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

    On Tuesday 24th April 2012, Gallery North, Northumbria University, City Campus East, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8ST we are debating ‘What role does volunteering play in improving employability and social mobility?’
    Volunteering has numerous benefits, ranging from increasing confidence and gaining new skills to developing social capital and meeting new people. This can increase access to opportunity and improve people’s employability; two factors that are centrally connected to social mobility. But access to volunteering varies geographically, socially and culturally; not everyone enjoys the same level of access to the full range of benefits of volunteering. Furthermore, certain types of volunteering may enhance employability to a greater extent and may contribute to social mobility to a greater degree.

    While evidence surrounding the link between volunteering and social mobility is limited, recent policy discussions around social mobility have highlighted issues of deprivation, privilege and equality of access to opportunity. We need to understand more about the extent to which volunteering and social mobility may be connected, how any relationship manifests itself, and what the implications are for those involved.

    This seminar will seek to examine the following questions:
    To what extent does a relationship between volunteering and social mobility exist?
    Are certain forms of volunteering more effective at facilitating social mobility than others?
    Is access to volunteering as a route to social mobility equal or is there variation between families, communities and geographical areas?

  4. Bryony Hoskins April 25, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

    Yesterday (24th April) at the ESRC, IVR and Northumbria University event on volunteering, employment and volunteering I argued in my speech that certain types of volunteering could contribute to social mobility for some people but that access to these forms of volunteering is not equal. In fact, the reverse is often the case that certain formal and structured volunteering experiences are often used to maintain privilege. For example, the evidence shows that young people from more advantaged backgrounds have greater access to the types of organised, competitive and structured volunteering (such as volunteering experiences abroad) that are recognised by employers and universities. When it comes to more informal help towards neighbours then social background is not such a barrier but these experiences are given less weight by employers on a persons CV.

    I also brought up the issue that in the current context of the economic crises that the tensions between the concepts and definitions of volunteering and various unpaid work schemes have become much more apparent in policy and practice. I suggested that the purpose of volunteering in comparison to unpaid work experience has previously been conceptualised as more balanced towards altruism, helping others and demonstrating a feeling of solidarity and less towards the individuals benefit for their career and financial gain. But is it wrong that volunteering is used as way into work when unemployment is so high and getting a job is so difficult? Should altruistic motives always provide the basis for the decisions to engage? Or is this the position of those who have security and can afford the time to give more? Many questions remain.

  5. suebaines April 27, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    I was delighted to be invited to speak at the Northumbria University policy seminar on Tuesday 24th April. It was good share a platform with local council speakers and a young volunteer, as well as an academic speaker with a different background from mine. ‘Volunteering and social mobility’ clearly strikes a cord and it was an excellent topic to engage people from different perspectives in lively and thought provoking discussion. But is it a good topic to guide policy?

    Quite a long time ago Professor Hardill and I wrote about the paradox of the (then) New labour policy of aligning volunteering with welfare to work agenda when a strong criticism of that agenda was about devaluing unpaid contributions to caring and neighbouring etc. I think people who value volunteering should be very wary indeed of attempts to frame it as a route towards employment and career advancement. I would prefer to emphasise the richness and diversity of volunteering, and its continuing importance for wellbeing on many levels for people of different ages and backgrounds. It was heartening that that was what largely what I heard from participants on Tuesday.

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