REPOST: Charities must adapt to ageing population – or miss out

An aging population is something that the voluntary sector must address soon. Are charitable organizations ready? Learn more from this report by The Guardian.

Two old ladies watching tennis at Wimbledon

‘Are older volunteers still viewed as an army of little old ladies…?’ asks Lynne Berry. | Image Source: theguardian.com

The Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing issues its final report today. We have called it Decision Time, and if that sounds a little foreboding that’s because it is supposed to.

Our population is getting older — within two decades, one in four of us will be over 65 — and the voluntary sector, from community charities to multi-million pound national funders, has some serious thinking to do.

If they get this right, the potential rewards for the voluntary sector are substantial. The numbers are eye-opening: if people hitting 65 keep donating time and money at the same rate as today’s older population, it’ll be worth the equivalent of £6.5bn to the sector over the next 20 years. It would take another 150 Red Nose Days to raise the same.

So by the middle of the 2030s our charities could be flourishing, from extra cash and resources but also from the expertise and experience that these baby boomers will bring. Voluntary organisations could be rich in many ways.

But there’s a hitch. In the course of 18 months’ research, the commission found little evidence that the voluntary sector was ready to grasp this prize. We heard two things all too regularly: that such-and-such a charity didn’t work with old people and therefore had no need to think about the ageing population; and that more elderly people means a looming social care crisis – and little else. As I say at the beginning of the report, civil society is gripped by a collective failure of imagination.

One thing is clear. If the voluntary sector is to adapt to our ageing population, charities must lead the way.

At the most strategic level, some will want to consider gearing up their work across the board. An ageing population will affect every corner of society, so the voluntary sector should too. Today’s children are the healthy, well-adjusted older workers of the future, but only if they get the support now. A bugbear I hear often from middle-aged people, meanwhile, is that charities offer them no support and few opportunities to engage, even as they hit the stresses of the “rush hour of life”.

On more day-to-day matters, charities may want to revisit how they work with volunteers: are older volunteers still viewed as an army of little old ladies, fulfilling basic tasks but never engaged at a more detailed, substantive level?

Our research suggests that new generations of over-65s are unlikely to accept this so readily. And how are fundraising campaigns pitched to older people (who, after all, donate more per head on average than anyone else)? “If I see one more cancer charity ad showing a young patient …” one donor told us, tailing off in frustration “when I know that the vast majority of cancer sufferers are elderly …”

Charities mustn’t alienate this base of support. Better still, they should market themselves as the perfect sector to retrain, retraining and recruiting older workers.

There are practical tips. Charities should take care how they present older people in their advertising and campaigning. It’s a lot better than it used to be, but there are still campaign posters showing old folk lonely and isolated; photos on charity leaflets where life after 70 looks miserable and empty.

I’m not naive about the financial pressures under which nearly all charities work, but the commission firmly believes that this isn’t the way charities should be raising funds or awareness. The short-term gain isn’t worth the long-term damage to how older people are perceived. The voluntary sector should be at the forefront of discussing later life as a success story. The peddling of negative stereotypes must end.

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.

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