Progress Without Profit: Building a relationship between older volunteers and nonprofits is essential

Older adults are critical to the functionality of nonprofits not only in terms of physical help but because of the unique experiences they bring to the job. (Photo courtesy of Marcus Aurelius via Pexels.) 

Instead of enjoying a delicious Thanksgiving feast together, I dropped off a plate of turkey and mashed potatoes at my grandma’s door. Rather than our usual Christmas morning gift exchange and brunch, my grandpa and I emailed each other “Happy Holidays!” For now, my grandparents and I settle for waves across the street over hugs.

My grandparents are certainly not the only older adults who’ve had a rough year. The coronavirus disrupted the lives of millions of older adults, demolishing daily routines and annual traditions. And, considering volunteer work is a common activity for older adults, the forced confinement to homes detrimentally impacted nonprofits as well. As we return to a post-coronavirus society over the next few years, nonprofits must not only welcome back older adult volunteers but also build stronger relationships with new volunteers as well. 

Older adults are most likely out of any age group to volunteer for 100 hours or more a year, and one in three U.S. volunteers are age 55 or older. In the next 40 years, the number of Americans over the age of 65 is expected to increase from 56 million to almost 95 million. As older adults account for a greater proportion of the population, nonprofits can harness their desire to volunteer to generate a larger volunteer workforce. 

This past year, nonprofits shifted in-person volunteering to a virtual format. While virtual volunteering has been semi-successful thus far, it requires training, technology and know-how not necessary for in-person volunteering. According to Pew Research Center, only 59% of Americans 65 and older have broadband internet connections, which is significantly lower than younger age groups. Additionally, Thomas Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services, claims that fluency with software applications presents a common hurdle for older adults when using tools like Zoom. 

Although innovative, virtual volunteering is not one-size-fits-all. Post-pandemic, many nonprofits will choose to pivot back to in-person volunteering. As nonprofits (hopefully) make the transition back to in-person work, they can re-energize their efforts to recruit former and new volunteers. 

Older adults provide a stable, reliable volunteer base for nonprofits. In a survey of volunteer program leaders across the Midwestern United States, 61% of respondents said older adults were easier to recruit than younger generations and 76% reported older adults were easier to retain. 

Older adults don’t solely contribute to nonprofits by performing physical tasks — they also bring their unique and valuable perspectives. The majority of volunteer program leaders found that volunteers’ life experiences, skills and “in-depth knowledge of organizational background, history or culture” were a huge advantage for nonprofits. The new generation of nonprofit leaders can learn from the wealth of stories and lessons of older adults. 

Importantly, recruiting older adults to volunteer for nonprofits helps both the organization and the older adults themselves.

Volunteering improves mental health — an especially important benefit post-pandemic. While this past year presented difficulties for everyone, older adults, who are at greater risk of serious illness from the coronavirus, were hit especially hard with isolation and anxiety. In fact, The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that one in four adults aged 65 and older reported anxiety and depression during the pandemic, up from one in 10 in 2018. 

Studies show that volunteering decreases risk of depression, allows older adults to meet new people and helps people stay physically and mentally active. Post-retirement, volunteering creates a renewed sense of purpose for many older adults by allowing them to apply their skills in a way that benefits society. Volunteering offers a valuable opportunity to reestablish a routine and return to normalcy after the pandemic. 

After months of isolation, many older adults will seek connections as they venture back into society. Now is the perfect time to nurture a relationship between older adults and nonprofits. In the Senior Corps, participants said their top motivations to volunteer were “the desire to feel valued and useful” and “the desire to feel vital and physically active.” 

In order to maximize participation, nonprofits need to tune into the motivations behind older adults’ decision to volunteer. For example, nonprofits should promote roles that utilize the skill-sets and knowledge of older adults, rather than simply assigning them busy work. A flexible schedule and mission-driven actions are key to engaging older adults. 

As we head toward a more hopeful future, we must reintegrate older adults through socialization and engagement opportunities. A strengthened relationship between older adults and nonprofits will not only be beneficial for both parties involved but also society as a whole. 

Sophie Roppe is a junior writing about nonprofit organizations and social justice. Her column, “Progress Without Profit,” runs every other Monday.