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Older volunteers want to help others and learn something new

07 October 2020

Older people who participate in voluntary work do this mainly in order to help others and to learn something new or enhance personal growth.  If organizations were to take this into account in recruiting and retaining volunteers, they could increase the number of older voluntary workers. These are the conclusions of researcher Jacobien Niebuur from the Department of Epidemiology at the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG) in the Netherlands, in her thesis about the determinants of participation in voluntary work. Niebuur will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen (UG) on 12 October. 

Previous research has shown that  participation in voluntary work carries various benefits for societies at large as well as for the health of the volunteers. Participation in voluntary work contributes to cognitive, physical and mental health and thereby promotes healthy ageing.. But who volunteers and why? And how can we encourage people to volunteer? This was the subject of research carried out by PhD candidate Jacobien Niebuur.

Using Lifelines, the large-scale population study of people living in the Northern Netherlands, Niebuur gathered data about participation in voluntary work and other societal activities among the adults aged 60 and over. This showed that older volunteers mainly do voluntary work to help others and to learn something new or enhance personal growth. The study also revealed that a large group of potential volunteers exists: many people who did not participate in voluntary work currently, said that they were willing to do so if they were asked.

Niebuur is advising organizations to make their recruitment campaigns more attractive. ‘Often, in vacancies for volunteer jobs, therequest for help is central. If vacancies for volunteers were to highlight what voluntary work has to offer for the individual in terms of possibilities to express altruistic concerns and to enhance personal developmend and growth, organizations would probably be able to expand their pools of volunteers.​

Individual resources for volunteering

Most voluntary workers are better educated, have a larger social network and more often previous volunteer experience than people who do not volunteer. They are more likely to be married or cohabiting than people who are not engaged in voluntary work. Frequent church-goers also more often volunteer. People with health problems and elderly people are less likely to participate in voluntary work. 

Influence of major life events

Niebuur’s research shows that major life events can influence someone’s decision to change their participation in  voluntary work. For example, people who retired recently or lost their job, often start volunteering. On the other hand, newly-weds and new parents are more inclined to quit volunteering, and if they were not doing voluntary work beforehand, they are less likely to start. People who recently started a new job tend to quit their voluntary activities, as do people who recently divorced, moved house or became seriously ill.​

Let Old Be Gold

In 2014, the research team headed by Nynke Smidt won the ‘Gift for Infinity’, a prize instigated by the UG to mark its 400th anniversary. The public was invited to send in questions for future research projects. The UG made a selection, used the questions that were selected to formulate three research proposals and asked the public to choose a winner. Fifty percent of the eight thousand respondents voted for the proposal entitled ‘Let Old Be Gold’, and this became Niebuur’s PhD project. See also https://kennisinzicht.umcg.nl/Paginas/Actief-oud-is-goud.aspx​. ​

Curriculum vitae

Jacobien Niebuur (1988, Marum) studied Economics at the University of Groningen. She conducted her research in the SHARE research institute of the UMCG. Her thesis is entitled ‘Who volunteers and why? Understanding the role of resources and motivations in participation in voluntary work’. Niebuur will continue to work as a postdoc researcher in the Department of Epidemiology at the UMCG after receiving her PhD.