On 1st October, the UK celebrates Older People’s Day to coincide with the UN International Day of Older Persons, a day where a host of nations celebrate the achievements and contributions that older people make to our society. The organisers of the event hope by publicising the contributions of older people we can help to change the negative attitudes and outdated stereotypes to ageing.
What are these stereotypes? Surveys reveal that commonly held beliefs about older people include: Older workers are less productive than younger workers; sickness and disability come with old age; older people cannot learn; old age begins at 60; the majority of older people are set in their ways, unable to change.
But Nicholas Crace, the founder of Reach, knew otherwise. He was concerned that the skills of retired professionals from business and industry were going to waste, skills such as accounting, marketing, public relations and management. His brainchild was to match these skills to the needs of the voluntary sector, the charities and community organisations that could not afford to pay for such expertise.
Judging by the bookful of press clippings I found in our archives, the launch of Reach in 1979, was a resounding success, a news story with popular appeal that captured the public’s attention. Close to 100 organisations signed on requesting Reach’s help and as many volunteers eager to contribute their skills.
“Among the successful matches,” reported the Times, “is Guide Dogs for the Blind in Windsor, which wanted a coordinator for 18 months to plan and organise its Golden Jubilee in 1981: a 62-year old retired managing director who lives locally was delighted to contribute his expertise.”
“More esoteric skills can also be of use,” said another article. ”Mr. John Preston, a 68-year-old former Chief Fire Officer with a major supermarket chain, now works part-time for the Abbeyfield Society, which runs 700 homes for elderly people, as an adviser on fire safety standards. ‘It keeps me occupied and in touch with changing regulations,’ he said. ‘I’m helping people and it gets me out of the house.’”
Over 35 years later, people of all ages now join Reach to find a charity where their skills can help (last year we made 2639 introductions between charities and volunteers), but a good number of Reach’s volunteers are over 54 — over 20% of all our volunteers are over 65.
The impact of skilled volunteers
How do those 50-plus contribute to the success of charities and how does it benefit them? Here is one of their stories:
“It’s been a great experience. I’m very grateful to Reach,” says Loretta Balfour. Loretta is speaking about her work as a Reach volunteer with The Prince’s Trust, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged young people. After 35 years at the Estee Lauder Companies in executive roles, Loretta retired but ‘couldn’t go from being a workaholic to doing nothing’.
The Trust was eager to co-opt Loretta’s executive experience. She became chair of the Launch Panel, which reviews business plans and makes recommendations for funding and support. When new developments were made to the Trust’s Enterprise Programme, Loretta was asked to provide her input. A training programme, compulsory for everyone who is starting a business, was implemented and Loretta delivers the mentoring session.
What does Loretta get out of her work with the Trust? ‘Young people come in who have had difficulties in life, are set on a path or maybe not – and don’t necessarily know how to move forward. When you see how they progress, you know you’ve made a difference.’
And Nicholas Crace, founder of Reach, is still contributing. A few years ago, his story made the headlines in all the major press and on TV. Nicholas, aged 83, gave a kidney to a stranger. He was the oldest person in the UK at the time to have done so.
“It was an easy decision for me to take,” he said. “Giving a small part of me to someone else will make little difference to my life but a huge difference to someone else’s. I was lucky to be in a position to help someone else less fortunate than myself.”
The Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing issued its final report, Decision Time last week.
Within two decades, one in four of us will be over 65 and the report points out that this should be seen as an opportunity rather than a problem. Huge numbers of over 65s already volunteer and the report calculates that if people hitting 65 keep donating their time, expertise and experience at the same rate as today’s older population, it’ll be worth the equivalent of billions of pounds to the sector over the next 20 years.
However the report found that many parts of the voluntary sector are not currently ready to grasp this prize with some seeing elderly people more in terms of a looming social care crisis than an invaluable resource. Or they view older volunteers as an army of little old ladies, fulfilling basic tasks but not to be engaged at a more detailed, substantive level.
To counter this the report says there is need for more skilled volunteer roles and consultancy-style internships which will be attractive to people looking for new opportunities to use the store of professional knowledge and experience they have built up over long careers.
This is very much where we at Reach come in. For 35 years we have been providing skilled professional volunteers to a wide range of charities of all types and size and in every part of the UK. We look forward to continuing this work for the years ahead helping to meet the challenges and opportunities for the voluntary sector set out in the report.
Janet Thorne, Reach’s CEO contributed to the work of the Commission as a member of one of its Discussion Groups:
“For us, older people are a huge asset: they offer an abundance of valuable expertise to charities. Older people have breadth of experience, highly developed skills and seasoned judgement; crucially this is accompanied by more stable lifestyles and more time to give. Almost 40% of our database is made up of older volunteers – and they are almost twice as likely to take up an assignment as younger people, and to stay in the assignment for longer.
We support the findings of the report – especially that charities will need to create interesting and creative opportunities to volunteer if they want to truly harness the potential of this important group. In our experience, charities vary widely in how effective they are at engaging volunteers. Some are poor at recognising the value that volunteers bring whilst others fully appreciate the contribution of their volunteers, and therefore make the most of their skills. Indeed, over 90% of our volunteers are pleased with their placements.”
The research from the report suggests that new generations of over-65s are unlikely to accept the negative stereotypes of life over 70 (think of some charity posters showing lonely and isolated older people) so readily.
Charities and the voluntary sector should be at the forefront of discussing later life as a success story, retraining and recruiting older workers. Decision Time also identifies some important changes from outside the voluntary sector that could help. The Treasury could think about helping individual donors give away their cash as annuity pots are drawn down, for example, and the cabinet office could consider whether reference to “need because of age” in the Charities Act is helpful.
But the voluntary sector must lead the way. There is work to be done.
Today marks Older People’s Day, a celebration of the achievements and contributions that older people make to our society and the economy. I have volunteered for Reach for three years, a unique charity specialising in the recruitment of skilled volunteers and their placements into suitable roles in charities throughout the UK. We place skilled volunteers of all ages (assuming they have at least three years of professional experience) though at Reach, we know the value of the Baby Boomers and older volunteers first-hand.
Working and socialising together
There are over 30 volunteers that work for Reach and like me, most of them are retired although there are enough younger people in the office, including 7 staff, to make a dynamic mix. This is one reason I enjoy volunteering with Reach; old and young get on with each other and help each other to achieve a common purpose. Our objectives are to achieve the annual targets of registering skilled volunteers and successfully placing them with charities throughout the UK. To date we are on track to achieve the targets for 2014 – our weekly internal newsletter produced by my colleague Robin (one of the retiree volunteers in the marketing team) keeps us up-to-date with the latest numbers.
Skills and experience
Older volunteers in Reach use the skills they have built up in their careers whether it is in management, HR, IT, marketing, law or a number of other areas which are valuable in the day- to -day tasks of communicating with potential trustees and volunteers as well as the charities. I believe it is no exaggeration to say that Reach would not be where it is today were it not for older volunteers.
I was interested to learn more about the ages of the skilled volunteers that we place into charities and we ran a report from our data base. It turned out that nearly half of the skilled volunteers Reach placed in the 12 months ending July 2014 were over 54 years of age and over 20% of all volunteers are over 65 years old.
Loyal and committed to the cause
If the volunteers in Reach are anything to go by, then loyalty is easily demonstrated in older volunteers. Nearly all the retired volunteers in Reach have been engaged longer than I have (our colleague James in the matching team has been here the longest; he started in 1997, 17 years ago!) and in the three years I’ve been here no-one has left!
What’s next for Reach?
As well as celebrating Reach’s 35th birthday at the moment (read more about what we have planned) we are also in the process of changing our web-based service which we expect will increase the volume of skilled volunteers across the UK. Read more about this development of our online hub. This is an exciting development in Reach’s history which we hope will attract and engage old and young volunteers alike, using their skills for good causes.
I look forward to seeing you on there!
Volunteer Marketing Assistant
Reach is getting involved with UK Older People’s Day on 1 October this year and helping people to think differently about older people and challenge stereotypes.
The day is an annual celebration of being Full of Life.
This year’s UK Older People’s Day is about sharing skills and experience between different generations. So, take time out of your day to celebrate the contribution older people make in your communities.
Events have taken place from early September and some will continue right through October. There’s a real variety of events ranging from month long events in Plymouth, to people of all ages contributing to a time capsule to mark the occasion in Stoke.
You can find out more on the official website, which is hosted by the DWP.