Today 62.8 million Americans volunteer, providing 7.9 billion hours of service worth an estimated $184 billion, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. Yet according to a recent AARP report, four in ten baby boomers and older people who want to help can’t find the right opportunities to do so. Significantly, a 2012 AARP Survey found that the reason most frequently cited for not volunteering was not being asked (41 percent).
Volunteering provides significant health benefits for older individuals, including those in less-than-good health. A 2009 study of Experience Corps, a program helping children in elementary schools with reading and other skills, found that a majority of all older participants reported increased energy and strength after volunteering. But those whose health was only fair were much more likely to improve in areas like stair-climbing and walking speed. In addition, a 2014 study found that there was a strong relationship between volunteering and lower levels of inflammation, especially among those 70 and older.
Better infrastructure could enable millions more to volunteer. The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, enacted in 2009, is the largest expansion of national service in a generation. It seeks to increase the number of volunteers from 60 million to 100 million by expanding and strengthening service programs, including AmeriCorps and Senior Corps. Specifically, the act authorizes AmeriCorps to grow from 75,000 positions annually to 250,000 by 2017. Of those slots, 10 percent are intended for people 55 and older. The Serve America Act also requires state service commissions to develop plans that will help more people age 55 and older use their skills and experiences to help their communities.
Beyond this, state governments have been working to empower more people of all ages to help out their communities. For example, California and New York recently elevated their service commissioner to the cabinet. Other states are asking people to volunteer to address education, disaster relief, economic issues, and other community needs.
To encourage more volunteering, the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 addresses nonprofits’ struggles to find reasonably priced liability insurance. The law ensures that no nonprofit volunteer (except drivers), while doing his or her official duties, can be held liable for harm resulting from an honest mistake or act of omission.
Aside from adequate financing, two barriers prevent taking full advantage of volunteer resources. First, many people have trouble identifying the best opportunities. Second, older volunteers are a valuable resource, with skills and education levels that can robustly contribute to nonprofits, but many nonprofits ask them to perform simple tasks geared toward a specific end, rather than truly tapping into their skills. The Serve America Act provides many effective mechanisms to help nonprofits expand the use of volunteers of all ages. Older adults and people with disabilities who have long-term care needs, as well as residents of nursing facilities, can be effective volunteers if the right opportunities are created. Their participation will also increase diversity in the volunteer pool.
Government entities also could benefit greatly by using volunteers more effectively in schools (for tutoring or mentoring), community centers, parks, Area Agencies on Aging, AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, the Peace Corps, and other organizations.
Programs to Promote Civic Engagement: Policy
The Corporation for National and Community Service should fund service projects that directly support older Americans’ contributions to the community.
Congress should appropriate funds that will help realize the goals of the Serve America Act. This should include full appropriation for the Volunteer Generation Fund to support community-level capacity building for volunteer service.
State and local governments should allocate sufficient matching funds and other resources to maximize volunteer service as a solution to community needs.
State and local governments should work with local school districts, libraries, and other public entities to maximize the use of older volunteers, particularly in tutoring and mentoring programs.
Engaging a wider range of volunteers
The Corporation for National and Community Service and state commissions should provide expanded opportunities for both older adults and young people to serve their communities.
State governments should authorize state service commissions to expand service opportunities that will help address community challenges.
The Corporation for National and Community Service and state commissions should fund efforts that provide training and build capacity in the volunteer sector to:
- engage millions more volunteers in helping address key challenges, and
- communicate those opportunities effectively to people of all ages, including baby boomers and older people.
Volunteer agencies should be encouraged to develop volunteer opportunities suitable for older adults with disabilities. Public agencies’ standardized assessments of people with disabilities should ascertain interest in volunteering and assessors should have information to make a referral.