Ageing and the voluntary sector – a wake up call

The final report of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing (PDF, 230KB) is an exercise in controlled fury. Sure, it is polite and respectful. But simmering beneath the surface is a barely disguised rage at what is seen as the voluntary sector’s complacency and singular failure to rise to one of the biggest challenges our time – our rapidly ageing society.

Standing at the crossroads

Decision Time, the report proclaims in its title. The sector, it says, is standing at a crossroads and can choose either to be ‘in the vanguard of shaping our ageing society’ or remaining in a ‘slumber’ and missing the ‘huge potential of an ageing nation’. The report is damming about the performance of the sector to date. When it started out the Commission said it expected to find plenty of examples of innovation and forward thinking. What they found instead was ‘a collective failure of imagination’.

There can be no doubting the scale of the transformation which is taking place. By 2033 nearly a quarter of the population will be 65 or over. Much of the new elderly will be in good health, with higher levels of disposable income, and with vastly different attitudes to ageing than previous generations. Only 6 per cent of people over 65 today define themselves as old. In the face of such seismic change the charge levelled at the sector over its slowness to respond does not seem unreasonable.

Blurring boundaries

The blurring of boundaries is a key theme of the report. The boundaries between the sectors – the voluntary sector it is claimed has much to learn from business in the treatment of older people (but is disappointingly silent on learning going the other way). The boundaries between age groups – the report recommends that we should stop seeing ageing as having its own set of issues but should address these at whatever age they arise. Age aware but age neutral the report calls it, the implication being that charities dealing with the same set of issues for people of different ages should seek to cooperate and even merge.

And the boundaries between different roles – donor, volunteer, employee, customer, and beneficiary, so that rather than seeing services to older people as being done to, the sector needs to re-design services to recognise the fact that older people will occupy multiple roles, encompassing service giver and service receiver, often at the same time. Co-production should be the overriding principle for designing services. ‘Nothing about us without us’ should be the mantra. And early intervention, designing services that support people in mid-life transition, rather than firefighting the problems associated with ageing, should be the norm.


The report throws out a number of challenges to the sector. It calls on charities to take a lead in combatting ageism, whether that be arbitrary age limits or careless language and imagery which depicts older people as dependent and decrepit; to capitalise on the talents of older people, especially in relation to volunteering; and to catch ‘the ageing windfall’ and ensure that charities get their fair share of older people’s spending power and philanthropic donations.

Are you interested in the changing motivations for people getting involved in volunteering?

We’d love you to join us at Evolve 2015 where Justin Davis Smith, our Executive Director of Volunteering and Development, will be delivering the workshop ‘From civic core to social action: The changing face of volunteering’

Find out more about Evolve 2015

On volunteering the report calls for new approaches to attract older people, aware that for many older people volunteering will need to compete with the joys and pressures of caring, looking after grandchildren, earning money, and engaging in leisure pursuits. The sector shouldn’t be frightened of looking at incentives to engage older people and should experiment with more flexible opportunities including ‘consultancy style internships’, whatever they might be. And the sector should lead the way in employment practice and seek to become the employer of choice for people in later life.

What can be done?

So what can the sector do? Well here’s a starter for five – we can:

  • gather examples of the good practice which already exists – publicising and working with funders to scale up
  • work with funders to develop new pilots and demonstrations to try out new ways of doing things which will engage the new old around volunteering and service delivery
  • ask organisations to pledge to do one thing this year to take the agenda forward, drawing on the successful approach in relation to young people and engagement adopted by Step up to Serve
  • gather more robust and impactful research on what works, in association with universities and the new Centre for Ageing better
  • continue to challenge ageism wherever it raises its ugly head – building on successful campaigns such as that run by Volunteering England and the Association of British Insurers a few years back to outlaw arbitrary age limits to volunteer driving insurance.

A polite kick up the backside

This is an important report, a wake-up call to the sector to think radically and differently. A demand that we stop thinking of ageing as a problem but as an opportunity.  That we address most ageing issues as age neutral, while campaigning fiercely against ageism in all its manifestations, which suggests to me that it is too early to write the obituary of older-specific charities. ‘Business as usual is not an option’; the report concludes. We need ‘root and branch’ change.

The sector should accept this polite kick up the backside and commit to do something about it.

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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.