Crittenden researching how to grow virtual volunteering among older adults 

The COVID-19 pandemic forced nonprofits to reinvent how they facilitated volunteer activities, especially for seniors, who are at higher risk of experiencing serious illness from the disease. Many implemented or increased their use of virtual volunteering, allowing older adults to continue assisting their favorite organizations.   

Jennifer Crittenden, a University of Maine assistant professor of social work, says virtual volunteering can make assisting nonprofits more accessible to older adults, particularly by alleviating the place and time constraints associated with volunteering. To support a broader integration of virtual volunteering, she will conduct a study to investigate its benefits, challenges and opportunities for growth and improvement. 

AmeriCorps awarded Crittenden $381,671 for her three-year-long project.

Crittenden, also associate director of the UMaine Center on Aging, will conduct interviews and surveys nationwide with volunteer program directors within all three AmeriCorps Seniors Programs, the older adults who volunteer for them and organizations supported by them. 

Gathering and analyzing quantitative and qualitative data will reveal how these groups are using virtual volunteering; the types of roles suited for it; their appeal to older adults; hurdles to their implementation; barriers to entry for some seniors, such as a lack of access to the necessary technology; and possible resources and solutions for eliminating them, according to Crittenden. They also will help organizations determine their efficacy in a post-pandemic world. In addition to this focus on virtual volunteerism, this research will consider other benefits programs offer to volunteers to make volunteering more accessible to older adults.   

Crittenden plans to disseminate her findings through a website containing reports and materials, tipsheets that can help seniors access virtual volunteer opportunities, conferences and manuscripts for academic journals. 

“The time is right for nonprofits and community organizations to engage an increasingly digitally savvy cohort of older adults who want to give back to their communities,” Crittenden says. “This research will build our knowledge of how virtual volunteering can be used to complement and expand access to, rather than replace, traditional on-site volunteerism.”  

Previous research has found that volunteering boosts health, well-being and social connection among seniors, Crittenden says. Older adults who found joy in the face of pandemic-related stress reported experiencing it through hobbies or using their skills, both of which can be achieved through volunteer work. 

Information and communication technology use is growing among older adults, Crittenden says, although some with lower incomes, health concerns, or residency in rural areas still struggle to access them. Greater use and access to technology can open doors to more virtual volunteering opportunities. 

Candy Eaton, coordinator for Age-Friendly Sullivan, has utilized virtual volunteer options for community-based programs. Its Bone Builders classes are led by older adult RSVP volunteers, and the program has recently shifted from fully remote during COVID-19 to a hybrid model of in-person and remote classes. 

“Technology has been enhancing the ability for Bone Builders participants to join our classes,” Eaton says. “Especially with high gas prices right now, Zoom has offered our participants the opportunity to access programming. It helps to prevent social isolation and helps to cover the gaps for those who live alone or who have tested positive for COVID.”

This study on volunteer participation among older adults is not the first Crittenden conducted in collaboration with AmeriCorps. 

She has investigated the conflict older adults experience between their desire to volunteer and other social obligations, as well as opportunities for organizations to retain and recruit them in spite of this dilemma. The three-year project, which earned Crittenden multiple funding awards from the agency that oversees AmeriCorps, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), generated tip sheets and other literature for volunteers and volunteer program staff, as well as 21 presentations and several technical reports. 

That study also spurred another pilot project with the UMaine RSVP program in which older volunteers simulating patients participated in a virtual volunteer assignment in a nurse practitioner educational exercise. Crittenden and Kayla Thompson, who graduated from UMaine with a master’s degree in social work in May, interviewed the participants to understand their experience with this unique virtual volunteer program. 

The UMaine Center on Aging has long been supporting volunteerism among older adults, including management of the UMaine RSVP program, one of five in the state, which has offered service opportunities to adults in Penobscot, Piscataquis, Hancock and Washington counties since 2007. It also offers the Senior Companion program, which serves 11 of Maine’s 16 counties and provides older adult volunteers with the opportunity to build friendships with and provide companionship to homebound older adults. Both programs have used technology during the pandemic to help keep older adults connected with their volunteer roles. 

“UMaine’s Center on Aging is an invaluable resource for Maine seniors as well as for students and researchers working to improve quality of life for older adults in our state,” said U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in a joint statement. “This grant will go a long way towards addressing knowledge gaps and ensuring volunteer options continue to be accessible for older Mainers engaged with causes close to their hearts. Congratulations to UMaine for this award and for their continued work to support seniors looking to stay involved with their communities.”

Contact: Marcus Wolf, 207.581.3721;