Crispin Truman: Don't let your volunteers get older and older

You need to find ways to reach the younger generation, writes our guest columnist

Crispin Truman
Crispin Truman

Volunteers are the life blood of charities. At the Campaign to Protect Rural England, our volunteers are the front-line campaigners and experts. They use their wisdom, energy and knowledge to ensure that the democratic rights of communities to determine their future and protect their environment are not brushed aside. But we, like many charities, worry about succession as volunteers get older and younger generations put their energies elsewhere.

In the past, we could be confident that as people matured and had more time they would often develop new interests and priorities that led them into volunteering. We can no longer be confident that will happen.

There is a societal shift in public participation. The trends that have led to the closure of pubs and churches, the decline in traditional forms of joining and contributing to society, are the same trends that will undermine charity volunteering if we don’t reform it. However passionately someone feels about a cause, if getting involved means turning up to long evening meetings and voting on motions at AGMs, we’re going to lose people. Without throwing the baby out with the bathwater (lots of people still like meetings), we need to find new ways to volunteer.

There are three keys to bringing the next generation into volunteering: language, opportunity and community.

Language In the sector (there I go again), we’re all hooked on jargon and don’t even realise it. We need, simply, to use plain and non-patronising English – "going forward, we need to manage-out the disincentivising articulation of our sector-specific, goal-oriented engagement philosophies". But seriously, we need to use the language, media and social references of young people. Talking about Mrs Thatcher is irrelevant to almost anyone under 40. Split infinitives aren’t a crime against humanity and social media isn’t just about celebrities and abuse.

Opportunity Volunteering for young people has to be at least in part about building their careers and bolstering their CVs. And for those not looking for retirement activities, volunteering needs to be time-limited, flexible and available in small, bite-size pieces. Jobs and even careers are no longer for life, and charities need to realise that young people will expect the charity world to mirror the flexibility of the working world.

Community People want to be part of something they can see, contributing to causes they understand and can relate to. In this era of climate change and perceived global threats, the adage "think global, act local" has never been more relevant. They want to be empowered and to influence the shape of their contributions. Volunteering can be the new cause to which people sign up as their way of changing the world, but only if it gives them real influence and power in their local communities and environment. And that’s the key.

People volunteer for a host of reasons, but in a world where it can be hard for young people to see how, as individuals, they can effect change and where cynicism about politics is rife, charities have a massive opportunity. If we can show people a way to make their actions matter, we will bring a new generation to volunteering.

Crispin Truman is chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England

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