Reach is 35 years old today – so what’s changed?

When Nick Crace set Reach up in 1979, he was driven by one simple, but brilliant idea: get retired people with useful professional skills to volunteer for charities. Simple, because it seems obvious in the way that good ideas do, and brilliant because it tackles two challenges at once: providing people suffering from a loss of structure and purpose with something useful to do, and providing expertise to charities that they could otherwise not afford.

35 years later Reach is remarkably unchanged: we provide a free service, connecting people willing to volunteer their skills with the charities which need them. And it is an idea that seems to have come of age – all manner of organisations and ‘experts’ are now promoting the importance ‘high impact’ volunteering, of harnessing volunteers’ skills and creating interesting opportunities.

Of course, there are differences. Then, the focus was largely on finding things for ‘retired executives’ to do. Now our driver is the skills that charities need, a demand-led approach if you like. And whist retired people remain a valuable source of volunteers, half of our register is now younger people, motivated by a mixture of things such as professional development, interesting projects, or causes close to their hearts.

Our 35th birthday has prompted us to delve into our archives, where we found numerous press clippings and radio interviews. It turns out, our founder was phenomenally good at PR! From the perspective of today, some of it sounds wonderfully dated. Articles quote wives begging Reach to take their newly retired husbands off their hands…

‘I can’t stand him being home all the time’ said a Mrs U of Halifax, wisely electing to be identified no further.

It all brings to mind the bowler-hatted father in Mary Poppins. And yet, strip away the dated language and the themes are remarkably similar:

  • The benefits of volunteering for the volunteer
    There has been a rush of research recently establishing the connection between volunteering and well-being. Back in 1979 Nick, previously of MIND, was very eloquent on the importance of volunteering in providing a sense of purpose to build self esteem and combat depression.
  • The ageing society
    In 1979 people were worrying about the impact of early retirement, caused by cost cutting and ‘…introducing micro technology’. Now the issue is increased life expectancy. The question remains the same: how should people fill this increasingly long post-retirement period, when they are healthy and productive, when they can wield a life time of accumulated skills, wisdom and experience, and they have the time to do it. ‘Leisure’ is an inadequate answer.
  • The politics of volunteering
    Concerns about job substitution are strikingly similar too. Then the backdrop was high unemployment and tense labour relations. Now it is austerity and Big Society. The fault line between volunteering and paid work remains political.

So what has changed?
The biggest change since 1979 emerges at the end of an early radio interview, where listeners are encouraged to get in touch – by writing to a postal address. That seems almost implausible now. And as we embark on our new journey, transforming our service to a digital one I wonder how the Reach of today will look in 35 years time.

Janet Thorne leads Reach as Chief Executive
October 6th, 2014 by