By Joe Casey
Retirement offers ample opportunities to volunteer. And once they’ve earned the freedom to retire, it’s no surprise that so many retirees choose to volunteer in their community. Volunteering offers tangible opportunities to make a difference in your community and the world at large, in ways both small and large. For some, it’s a part of a portfolio of activities, while for others it’s a mission-driven focal point. While it’s primarily about the impact you can have, volunteer service is also an excellent way to form new relationships and cultivate a new purpose in retirement. But how do you find the volunteer match and the volunteer organization that’s right for you? Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service over 77 million people volunteer annually. There are clear reasons why. You can do good – and it’s good for you. In fact, there are numerous benefits of volunteering. And many of these benefits can be enhanced for retirees. First and foremost, volunteering gives you the chance to help others; make a difference in the lives of others; and discover a new purpose. Many people find that this is gratifying, especially after a lifetime of employment.
Volunteering also connects you to your local community. According to the National Institute on Aging, isolation and loneliness are seen as threats to the health of older adults. Volunteer service provides an excellent environment for forming new friendships and keeping social connections alive.
Volunteer service is best when you are able to apply your skills to an organization that shares a mission you are passionate about. Because retirement brings so many opportunities to volunteer, it’s wise to investigate where to devote your time and energy so that it’s with an organization you believe in.
If you’re having trouble finding a good volunteer match, try looking at volunteer organizations who align with your personal values and beliefs. Someone who is interested in community literacy, for example, may want to start their search by contacting a local library or bookstore.
Never overlook the importance of finding the right role. Finding a role that leverages your skills and experiences is optimal. Of course, this isn’t always going to be feasible due to the disparate needs of organizations. In any case, it’s a good idea to seek roles that allow you to be useful and productive.
Who you’re working with during your volunteer hours is just as important as what you’re doing. The best volunteer engagements are those that put you in contact with people whose company you enjoy. After all, you don’t want to commit to a volunteer organization, only to discover that you’re butting heads with everyone there. (That sounds too much like work and you’ve graduated from that).
Your volunteer role should not lead to feelings of stress or overwhelm. Determining your intended level of commitment is one of the best ways to find a role that works for you. Most volunteer organizations are used to dealing with scheduling conflicts, too, so you shouldn’t have any trouble establishing a plan that fits into your life. Make sure that your level of commitment is aligned with the expectations of the organization.
Before adjusting to the rhythm of their freedom to retire, new retirees can easily bite off more than they can chew. Having the gift of time combined with enthusiasm can lead to over-commitment, and create a perfect storm of regret and resentment. Before getting too wrapped up in a volunteer role, plan – and test – how you want to invest your time in retirement and where volunteering fits in to that. You may find that you really want to enjoy some hard-earned time off before taking on any new obligations. Starting when you’re truly ready makes things easier for everyone involved.
People transitioning into retirement from corporate life are often used to being in charge. As a new volunteer, they are often asked to do far less than they may want to do. Furthermore, they may be asked to do things that are far below their skill set and experience. It can be a blow to the ego.
When that’s the case, it’s important to reconnect with your reasons for volunteering in the first place. If you find yourself bumping up against the boundaries of your role and you start to become frustrated, it may be a good idea to step back and reexamine your priorities.
Without a reasonable level of due diligence, you may find yourself caught up with an organization that turns out to be quite far off from your original vision. To avoid this, make sure you read up on an organization before you commit to a volunteer role. It’s also helpful to research their place in the community and their plans for the future. Learn more about what it’s really like. Doing your part to learn about the organization will help you avoid any bad fits.
You might miss some things about work. But no one misses office politics. However, it can be easy to get caught up in the uplifting mission of an organization and fail to realize that all organizations have political dynamics. Not-for-profit organizations are not exempt. You could find yourself caught up in a whirlwind that exceeds your appetite.
Reflect honestly on your motivations and what’s most important to you. Are you simply looking to pass the time during retirement? If so, it may be best to consider other activities. But most people who volunteer have a stronger “Why” behind their volunteer activity. Many are driven by wanting to make the most of their freedom to retire by giving back. That’s a great starting point. But it’s wise to dig deeper and be clear about how you want to do so. Fast forward three to five years and envision how you will specifically have made a difference. Regardless of your motivations, it’s helpful to be clear about your own expectations.
Try to absorb diverse perspectives from a variety of people both inside and outside the volunteer organization. Develop a sense of the opportunities that volunteers have to contribute. Ask them about challenges they face. Ask them what has surprised them about the organization. This kind of preparation is a great way to ensure that the particular volunteer organization is right for you. And it will prepare you well if you decide to go forward.
Do reasonable homework so you have a realistic picture of the role you’ll play. What’s the time commitment required? What are the responsibilities and boundaries of the role? How do they match up with your expectations? Answering these questions in advance can save you lots of time and hassle.
There’s no shortage of opportunities to serve. To find those that best suit you, be prepared to decline opportunities. Saying no presents a challenge for some people. But, learning how to politely decline opportunities can lead you to those that are right for you.
Volunteer service is a great way to invest some of your time in retirement. So, do some homework on what would be the right volunteer opportunity for you. Start by visiting Senior Corps or volunteermatch.org for information on opportunities in a multitude of causes across many locations in the US.
Joe Casey is a former senior HR executive at Merrill Lynch who’s in his second career as a retirement coach at Retirement Wisdom. He holds a Masters in Gerontology from the University of Southern California and works with people to help them design what’s next after their primary career. He hosts The Retirement Wisdom Podcast talking with authors, experts and retirees pursuing interesting Second Acts who share the lessons they’ve learned that can help you in your journey.
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