Many older people are healthy and able and willing to engage in volunteer work. Helping their children and grandchildren to better cope with challenges is a strong motivator for older people and provides meaning and direction to their lives.

Communities and countries often perceive the trend of a rapidly aging population as a major threat to both wealthy and emerging economies. In fact, while aging has a significant disruptive potential, it can also promote and enforce innovation. From the perspective of civil society organizations (CSOs), I look at aging as a driver of both disruption and innovation, and ultimately as a source of opportunity for our sector.



As both absolute and relative numbers of older and ailing people increase rapidly, governments in both rich and poor countries are realizing that they will struggle to secure basic living standards and provide social services and health care for a growing number of older people and a larger percentage of the total population. Traditional social security systems will be stretched thin and grow increasingly overstretched as the ratio between financial contributors and beneficiaries becomes unbalanced. Governments will barely be able to cope with these challenges.


As a result, CSOs will find a growing field for engagement. However, just doing more of the same will not suffice. New forms of support for older people need to be developed, with a much stronger focus on self-help and volunteerism. In this context CSOs are challenged to build on their experiences of empowering people and promoting self-sustaining support structures.


Communication and Advocacy

While an increasing number of countries in the southern hemisphere start facing the challenge of an aging population, many still have a very large percentage of young people whom they cannot provide with appropriate education and work. Many young people in these countries aim to migrate to the rich and aging part of the world where they expect to find work and a better life. Sadly, xenophobia and racism in these countries often prevent this obvious win-win proposition to take effect. Countries like Germany are experiencing an enormous shift in the age composition of their population and expect a dramatic decline in their overall population. But hostility towards foreigners—especially in the parts of the country with the fastest shrinking population—often prevent the integration of the immigrants the country so urgently needs. CSOs in the countries most affected by population aging have an important role to play in educating the public about the need for and benefits of immigration. CSOs in the northern hemisphere should focus their communication and advocacy much more on promoting a culture that welcomes immigrants and facilitates their integration.



Complaints about an aging supporter base are common in our sector. On one hand, the aging of supporters is hardly avoidable when the average population is aging. On the other hand, the aging of supporters is often also due to changing preferences of younger donors who no longer use the traditional channels of major CSOs but rather engage on Internet platforms, transferring their support directly to their preferred project without involvement of an intermediary. CSOs need to do targeted investing and be more flexible and creative in attracting the next generation of donors. One effect of an aging donor base often is the rapid increase in CSOs’ income from legacies. While this is a welcome source of funding, it can be a worrisome sign if the CSO has not been able to attract a new generation of donors. At a minimum, CSOs should make sure that their donor base is not aging faster than the overall population of the country in question.



Many older people are healthy and able and willing to engage in volunteer work. Helping their children and grandchildren to better cope with challenges is a strong motivator for older people and provides meaning and direction to their lives. Another important area of solidarity is providing support to other older people who are less able to help themselves. Thus, systematically providing older people with opportunities for volunteering and activism is a major opportunity for CSOs aiming to increase their reach and impact. While many Anglo-Saxon countries have a strong culture of volunteerism, many other countries still need to develop such a culture. CSOs can and should play a leading role in developing this culture.


Aging can be a major disruptive factor for CSOs. However, avoiding it is not an option. If CSOs are willing to identify the opportunities aging provides, they will deliver crucial support to older people and at the same time “rejuvenate” their own organizations. 


About the author

Burkhard Gnärig is co-founder and Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre. The Centre helps the world’s leading civil society organizations, such as Amnesty International, Oxfam, and WWF maximize their impact for a sustainable and more equitable world.

Before his current role, Burkhard was the CEO of the International Save the Children Alliance, based in London, Greenpeace Germany, and terre des hommes Germany. As a field director in Papua New Guinea, he represented the German Development Service.

Burkhard has been Board Chair and Board Member of various civil society organizations in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, India, Korea, and Japan. He recently published the book “The Hedgehog and the Beetle—Disruption and Innovation in the Civil Society Sector.”




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