Challenges in the Contemporary Volunteering Environment

By Jeni Warburton
From Positive Ageing, Volunteering SA&NT, 2013, pp. 27-29

Changes ahead for the volunteer sector

In the contemporary context, many older people are volunteering because they have skills and experience to share. Those with particular skills, such as accounting, administration, landscaping, and so on, can contribute these skills to the not-for-profit sector. As a result, volunteer opportunities have broadened, and organisations use volunteers in many different roles. Older people bring life experience to their volunteering, and many volunteers are keen to contribute this experience. Thus, mentoring of young people or those with special needs can draw on this experience, as can working with children or families in need.

However there are some profound changes that are happening to the volunteer world in the contemporary environment. It is important that we consider some of these issues if we are to maintain the vibrancy of the sector and the contribution made by Australian volunteers, as well as ensure that older people are able to gain from the associated health and social benefits. These changes have the potential to stop older people giving their time as volunteers.

Incentives and barriers to volunteering

In 2007 we conducted a large research study over several phases into the incentives and barriers to volunteering by older people. The results reflect structural changes occurring in the contemporary volunteer world as a result of increased legislation and regulation, as well as a changed ageing environment as the large group of baby boomers starts to hit later life. This group is projected to be quite different from previous generations, and brings new expectations and demands for their volunteer roles. While motivations are the personal or internal reasons why people volunteer their time, there are structural factors that can discourage people from volunteering, and are thus critical in retaining existing volunteers as well as recruiting new ones.

Too many rules can put volunteers off

Overall, volunteering has become much more professionalised. Volunteers in the baby boomer and other studies talk about the more professional, formal environment surrounding not-for-profit organisations. Even small agencies, such as Meals on Wheels services, now have to comply with health and safety legislation, risk management, insurance issues and the like. These are, of course, important to protect both clients and volunteers, but they can be ageist and be a barrier to people’s involvement. For example, some insurance providers still have an age limit, which means that older people are not insured to drive.

As noted in the Australian study, this external environment can be off-putting, with some volunteers noting that police checks are costly and take a long time to process. One volunteer, for example, was affronted that having been Father Christmas for twenty years, he was now told that he had to have a police check. These changes can be problematic, and certainly respondents highlighted them as a barrier to volunteering.

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