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It’s a duty thing

10 September 2014

Thousands of people give their time freely to underpin civic institutions and processes that most of us take for granted, from schools through to the criminal justice system and local government.

Magistrates, school governors, local councilors, trustees – many of the core pillars of of our society are held together by the unpaid time of volunteers, before you even consider the formal and informal volunteering that takes place around local fundraising drives, PTAs, youth movements, public amenities, historical societies, conservation and green groups – the list goes on and on.

If you were to group all of this, one label you can use would be civic duty, a decidedly old fashioned-sounding concept in our increasingly consumerist, apparently time poor society. Many charities who rely on volunteers are already getting exercised about how they continue to recruit and retain people in roles that are in a lot of cases ill-fitting for changing lifestyles. NFP Synergy recently published the first in a series of reports looking at emerging trends in volunteering where this challenge is likely to be highlighted again and again. For civic duty roles like being a magistrate, that challenge is made more acute by the lack of public awareness and recognition for many of these roles and the sheer level of commitment and responsibility required for them.

Much is being pinned on getting people currently around retirement age to given even more of their time and energy than they are already doing. On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. The 2010 Citizenship Survey consistently found high rates of civic engagement among older people – from signing petitions to standing as local councilors.

However, they won’t do it simply out of duty. The current generation of retirees has more opportunity and choice than previously – there is a lot more competition for their time and commitment, not least from their own children who are increasingly leaning on grandparents as unpaid carers for their children while they work.

So, what can be done to meet the communications challenge this creates?

Well, for one thing we can stop treating older people as a homogenous group defined by age and start to really consider how we segment them in terms of the propensity for civic participation.

Secondly, we can look at ways of engaging them before they become retirees. Progressive businesses are increasingly investing time and thought on how they support their employees’ transition into retirement, including inspiring them to give more time to the causes they care about. Many employee volunteering schemes are rightly focused on generating opportunities for current staff. However there is a real chance to build engagement campaigns that inspire older employees to consider some of these civic duty roles as part of their retirement plans. Businesses with a strong social purpose understand the need to consider their impact and responsibility beyond the immediate footprint of their work, and that includes the lives and impact of former employees once they have entered retirement.

Campaigns of this type could go a long way to ensuring a healthy pipeline of new volunteers by encouraging retired and retiring employees to become part of the vital backbone supporting so many of our civic institutions.