Many people look forward to volunteering in a rather vague, non-committal way when they retire from employment. When you ask people what they are going to do when they retire, you pretty much expect to hear them say “travel” and/or “volunteer.” If you push the matter a little further and ask specifically what they plan to volunteer to do, you might be met with blank stares. The truth is that it is much easier to talk about volunteering than to do it.
Volunteerism is a wonderful thing. Volunteers provide priceless service to the community. A lot of the good that happens in our world would not get done without volunteers. In addition, doing volunteer work can help a bored retiree by providing interesting, purposeful activity. Volunteering can also provide the volunteer with a community of like-minded friends.
Some people are passionate about particular organizations or needs or have specific skills that translate well into the volunteer world. Typically, these wonderful people already have a robust volunteering life, even while working. When they retire, they simply expand their involvement to fill some of the hours they used to spend on the job. If you are starting from scratch, though, it can be hard to find volunteer work that is a good fit for your skills, interests, lifestyle, and number of hours you want to devote. It is also important to be a good steward of your resources and it can be surprisingly hard to find sturdy organizations that are operating in an ethical, upright way.
One of the best ways to embark or continue on a volunteering career is to look to organizations you already support financially or know about through friends, family, and community contacts. If you attend a specific church, is there some outreach program that calls to you? Have you been impressed with some organization that provided help in an awesome way to someone you know? When you were working for a living, did you interact with any charitable organization that did great work? Have you seen an organization on the news or other local source that sponsored some event or project that speaks to you? These are all great places to start in your search for volunteer involvement. Usually, a charitable organization will have a place on its website to explain how to volunteer.
You can also try websites that match potential volunteers with opportunities based on areas of interest and location. Two websites to check are www.volunteermatch.org and www.createthegood.org. Both sites let you specify what kind of organization speaks to your passion. They also both give you a way of filtering by how far away from your location you are willing to travel.
Before committing to volunteer at a specific organization, you might want to do some research. Google the name of the organization. Read their website to see if their mission and general vibe seems compatible with your own thoughts and feelings. Also look for other chatter about the organization on your internet search. Are there any reviews anywhere? Is there a hit showing someone mentioning them on a blog or comment? Are there any news stories about events concerning the organization? Of course, as with any other internet research, it is important to be discerning. Whether the hits you find cast the organization in a positive or negative light, you will ultimately have to be the one to decide how much weight to put on the perspective you get from your internet search.
You can also check out the organization’s tax exempt status with the IRS. This may give you a general idea that it did meet some standard of charitable intent and financial accountability. You can check the status of most organizations by going to www.irs.gov and typing EO Select Check into the search bar. You will land on a page with a button that will take you to a form where you can request information on an organization based on name or Employer Identification Number (EIN.) Some organizations, such as churches, do not need to have a specific exempt organization determination from the IRS. These organizations may not be listed on this database, but are still considered bona fide charities. If you have doubts, you can ask the organization to show you a copy of their tax exempt determination letter.
You may also want to visit the organization’s offices and/or the location where you would be working. Is it a reasonable drive? Is it an area where you feel comfortable? Is there parking? If you have special needs, are you going to be able to manage the parking lot and office? Most places are handicapped accessible in this day and age, but it pays to check. For instance, maybe you need a handicapped accessible parking place and the organization has one or two spots, but they are nearly always filled. You might want to either see if the organization can make arrangements for you or you might want to consider another charity.
I think it is important to cut yourself some slack, too. I know I used to say I would probably volunteer when I retired. After I retired, however, my enthusiasm sort of paled. I just felt like I wanted to rest and decompress. For quite some time, the only thing I volunteered to do was write a check. Contributing money to worthy causes is fantastic. On the other hand, it is kind of like asking someone who says they like to cook what they like to make and have them respond, “reservations.”
My community is largely resident-operated. We have a small paid staff of employees to take care of administration, but much of the amenities and services are provided by residents who volunteer their time and talent. We have many residents who bring with them experiences and expertise from their working lives that they generously share to help the rest of us. Max and I have taken advantage of the benefits provided by these volunteers. The couple who coordinates the volunteers who staff our community’s gate guardhouse used to work in law enforcement. We attended a hurricane preparedness seminar led by a gentleman whose employment career had been with the Red Cross. A gentleman who used to work for some city agency performed our mandatory annual irrigation system backflow testing (don’t even ask me what that is because I haven’t a clue but that guy basically used to do it for a living!). I go to water aerobics classes taught by a lady who has been a certified instructor for over 30 years.
After about six months of living in the community, I was feeling pretty guilty that I availed myself of these benefits but didn’t do anything. It was eating away at me, but my natural shyness, the amount of time I was spending with my mom, and my reluctance to jump too quickly into committing to something I might regret was leaving me stuck in a no man’s land. I was wallowing in guilt, but not really motivated to do anything to propel me out of the mire.
Finally, an opportunity presented itself. The community contracted a photography company to produce a pictorial directory for the residents. This is a pretty common practice for communities, churches, schools, large clubs, etc. The photographer does photo sessions with all residents who agree to be photographed and produces the directory for the community. The photographer pays a fee to the community for each person who participates. Each resident who agrees to participate gets a free 8X10 photo and a free copy of the directory. The photographer makes money by selling prints and other products to the participants in a discussion after each photo session. It is a reasonable partnership between the photographer and community. The community also contributes volunteer labor to set appointments and check people in for their sessions.
I figured I could safely volunteer to help with this project. It didn’t sound like it would be too taxing or require any particular skill. The main selling point to me was that it seemed like a self-limiting condition. In volunteering for a self-contained project like this, I could offer some service, but would not be committing myself for an undefined amount of time over some indefinite period. It also might be a good way to meet people and maybe make some friends. I signed up to greet people when they came for their photos and complete the forms that the photographer needed. I even used my real name and phone number when I signed up!
The coordinator called a few days later to invite me to attend the orientation meeting. When I got to the house, I was surprised to find a living room and kitchen crammed full of people…. And food. Apparently, one of the fringe benefits of volunteering in the community is free snacks. I found the number of new people a bit overwhelming. I could feel myself start to retreat into my shell. Then I remembered one of my goals in volunteering was to meet people so I pulled out some of my “forced extroversion” skills from my working life. I listened carefully to conversations around me and was even able to manage some small talk, thus integrating into one of the little group chats that was buzzing around before the meeting.
One of my new-found acquaintances introduced me to the coordinator. My new-found acquaintance began to list all the activities and events included in the coordinator’s volunteering portfolio. I don’t think I could have listed them all without index cards.
“Wow,” I said to the coordinator when my new-found acquaintance came up for air, “You are a busy lady.”
“Yes,” replied the coordinator. “It started really small. I volunteered to do one thing and it kind of just grew. They really keep you hopping here.”
“I don’t know if I really want to hop,” I said doubtfully, beginning to wonder if I had made a dreadful error in judgment. “I think I’d prefer to amble.”
The coordinator gave me an odd look and wandered off.
I staffed several shifts of greeting people on picture days. It was definitely not a difficult job. Let’s face it- it also wasn’t a huge, noble sacrifice to improve the state of the universe. Still, I know that the money that the photography company paid to the community will benefit others and I felt good about contributing. Maybe it will motivate me to amble into something a little more substantial sometime soon.
Have any of you volunteered in retirement? What was your experience like? Any suggestions for folks just starting out on a volunteering career? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a great day!