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Senior Volunteers as Assets

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A statewide study was completed on senior volunteers as community assets, a project funded by the Hawai`i Community Foundation. The random dial, telephone survey of 859 participants asked middle-aged and older adults about their volunteer experiences, their plans to increase time spent in volunteering, things that motivated them to volunteer, and things that might discourage them from volunteering.

The purpose of the survey was to:

  1. Compare national and local data on volunteering.
  2. Inform the development of the Hawai`i Community Foundation's Senior as Assets initiative.
  3. Provide useful information to state agencies and non-profits that want to increase and retain their pool of older volunteers.

Executive Summary

Middle-aged and older adults can be especially regarded as valuable assets because they have many years of life experience and wisdom to share. In his book on how baby boomers will revolutionalize retirement and transform America, Marc Freedman (1999) regards older adults as America’s “only increasing natural resource.” The key, according to Freedman, is learning to harness the time, talent, and idealism of the older generation.

The Hawaii Community Foundation recognizes the increased longevity and improved health status of older people and their value as resources to society. The foundation’s “Seniors as Assets” initiative proposes to engage all respondents in productive community life by supporting projects that provide new and expanded opportunities to participate in meaningful roles. Respondents benefit because volunteering enhances their personal development, and productive engagement contributes to prolonged mental and physical health.

Nationwide studies have been done on volunteerism, and while there are baseline data on volunteerism at the national level, there are none on the State of Hawaii. For example, since 1988, Independent Sector in Washington, DC has done five biennial national surveys of giving and volunteering behaviors of adults 18 years of age and older. In 1999, a national survey by Civic Ventures included volunteerism among older Americans in the contiguous 48 states; Alaska and Hawaii were excluded. The findings from this study become the baseline data for Hawaii for middle aged and older adults.

A statewide, random dial, telephone survey of 859 adults between the ages of 50 and 75 years was conducted to provide reliable information about volunteering patterns and motivations that lead to such prosocial behaviors. The Transtheoretical model using the Stages of Change constructs was used to guide this study (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1983).

Many of the findings not only parallel the national patterns and trends of volunteerism, they also confirmed all but one of the hypotheses used to guide this study. While some of the differences between volunteers and non-volunteers may be seemingly small, these differences are nonetheless, statistically significant.

Volunteers are more likely than non-volunteers to perceive themselves in good or excellent health. Volunteers are also more likely: 1) to have more years of education; 2) to be younger in the 50-75 years of age range; 3) to be women (65 percent of respondents); 4) to come from households with relatively higher incomes; 5) to be helping a family member and/or to be giving to charity; and 6) to have been involved in volunteer work when they were children.

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The findings also indicate that 57 percent of adults between the ages of 50 and 75 have volunteered in the past six months. This may translate into 1.5 million volunteer hours in the past 30 days, statewide. Volunteers spent an average of 9.5 hours in the past 30 days helping individuals and 12.7 hours assisting organizations. Individuals are not generally willing to commit to volunteer work for an extended period of time. The commitment of “a few hours here or there” seems to be most preferred.

Volunteer work is most often done through religious programs or programs that help children. Opportunities to help individuals are most often learned through a friend or relative, while opportunities to help organizations are most often learned through a church, temple or other organization. Volunteers are also more likely than non-volunteers to be a member of a retiree or senior organization.

It is clear that those who volunteer do not volunteer because they seek tangible returns. However, this is not to be confused with the need to provide volunteers with intrinsic rewards in order for them to continue to volunteer.

Current volunteers indicate that they are likely to continue or increase their volunteer commitment in the future. On the other hand, non-volunteers indicate that they will be likely to volunteer if the philosophy or mission of the organization is consistent with their values or belief system.

Factors such as not having a pleasant and safe environment in which to do volunteer work in, not being in better health, and having family and other obligations seem to be barriers to doing volunteer work.

There are more volunteers in the pre-retirement group (50-64 years old) than those who are retired. Seventy-one percent of the respondents who are not yet retired are involved in some volunteer work while only 36 percent of retirees are volunteers. Additionally, volunteers in the pre-retirement group contribute three times more hours of volunteer work than the retirees in this survey. This finding is noteworthy because the literature on volunteerism indicates that “people with higher incomes, with more education and with professional types of occupations are more likely to volunteer their time to organizations” (Fischer & Schaffer, 1993, p.20).

Overall, the findings suggest there is a potential to increase volunteerism among adults between the ages of 50 and 75; about 43 percent of the respondents are not currently volunteering, and about 10 percent of the 859 surveyed have never volunteered before. Nonetheless, 83 percent of non-volunteers are likely to volunteer if the volunteer work is meaningful or makes a difference in people’s lives. Two out of three non-volunteers are likely to volunteer if the hours are convenient, if the task is clear and specific, and if the agency will “train me to do the work”. Additionally, 67 percent of non-volunteers are likely to volunteer if they know there is a need for their volunteer time.

However, while non-volunteers are likely to volunteer if the above conditions are present, the data also point strongly to the notion that the burden is on the organizations to recruit and retain volunteers rather than on potential volunteers to be seeking volunteer work to do.

However, while non-volunteers are likely to volunteer if the above conditions are present, the data also point strongly to the notion that the burden is on the organizations to recruit and retain volunteers rather than on potential volunteers to be seeking volunteer work to do.

More importantly, the findings suggest that instead of a one-time event, the business of volunteerism is an on-going process in which concerted efforts are made to:

  1. Make known the organization’s mission and goals
  2. Publicize or advertise the organization’s need for volunteers
  3. Have a mechanism to orientate, do intake, educate and/or train the volunteers
  4. Provide volunteers with intrinsic rewards (i.e., giving them jobs that are important, interesting and/or challenging, or opportunities to make meaning of the work they do)
  5. Respectfully oversee these individuals by use of clear guidelines and policies, and supervision
  6. Provide them with support and recognition in a timely fashion; and even
  7. Anticipate volunteers as potentially increasing their responsibilities and/or commitment over time.

All that said, the burden should not solely be on the non-profit agencies to recruit and work with these potential volunteers. The data also suggest that family members and friends, communities-at-large, corporations in the private sector, leadership in government, media organizations, and funding agencies can be important partners in the effort to recruit, train, and retain those middle-aged and older adults who are not currently involved in volunteer work.

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