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October 28, 2020; New York Times

At the start of the pandemic, organizations implored older volunteers to stay at home and decided to recruit younger volunteers instead. However, as the pandemic rages on and nonprofits adjust to remote and distributed work, it is clear that there needs to be a renewed focus on engaging older volunteers. For one, in the US, volunteers tend to skew older. As NPQ’s Danielle Holly notes, “Boomers and the Silent Generation—citizens 56 years and older—are the largest percentage of traditional volunteers at local direct service organizations, given that they’re more likely to be phasing out of the workforce or retired.” Failure to leverage a ready-and-willing volunteer force lessens the potential for larger impact.

Another reason to engage senior volunteers is because of the immediate health benefits volunteering provides. Public health officials have been sounding the alarm on worsening mental health caused by the pandemic. Older adults are particularly vulnerable to greater levels of depression and loneliness due to social isolation. Volunteering can serve as a buffer to rising levels of anxiety, stress, and depression. Marc Freedman, chief executive and founder of Encore.org, a nonprofit that seeks to “change the culture by elevating new ideas and diverse voices on the power of connection and collaboration across generational divides,” asserts, “We know from decades of research that strong social connections and a reason to get up in the morning are key to our well-being as we age, so we need to get past the idea of ‘stay safe and stay out of the way.’”

So far, efforts to design meaningful, virtual volunteer experiences for older adults have led to mixed results. Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United—a nonprofit that focuses on “improving the lives of children, youth, and older people through intergenerational collaboration, public policies, and programs”—observes that, “We’re hearing about some really wonderful successes of people who are pivoting and are resilient and finding ways to stay connected—and we’re also hearing about the problems of social isolation that older adults are experiencing.”

Despite the challenges, many nonprofits are rising to the occasion. For organizations revamping volunteer roles for virtual engagement, here are a few things to consider:

  • What software/equipment is needed for the volunteer role? Is the software free and/or easily accessible (e.g., free video conferencing software) or will volunteers need licensed software? If so, how much will it cost? Unsurprisingly, technology poses a major obstacle to engaging older adults in virtual volunteering. Thomas Kamber, founder and executive director of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), notes that being unaware of the level of connectivity needed for certain activities and fluency with different software applications are common barriers to volunteering for older adults. Consider differentiating roles to accommodate varying levels of technology skill and ability.
  • What new needs have cropped up? What gaps in service could be addressed by volunteers? Conducting a needs assessment could help pinpoint new volunteer opportunities. For example, when OATS transitioned its Senior Planet program online, Barbara Lewers, a 79-year-old retired volunteer, shifted to making check-in calls to older New Yorkers. In addition to check-in calls, Lewers distributes tablet computers to older adults living in low-income housing and helps train residents in how to use them.
  • When evaluating if a task could be assigned to a volunteer, ask if the role is purposeful. Does the virtual opportunity offer the chance to interact with other volunteers, staff, or directly with clients? For instance, Table Wisdom, a nonprofit that matches older adults with international students to provide support in building career and English language skills offers video chat to participants who have been affected by social distancing.
  • What type of training will volunteers need in order to fulfill their new role? For retired volunteers, discuss previous roles and see if there is alignment with current needs in which the volunteer’s expertise can be leveraged in new ways.

COVID-19 has forced organizations to pivot. For organizations that rely on volunteers, this is an opportunity to take a step back, reevaluate, and design purposeful, meaningful volunteer opportunities.—Chelsea Dennis