November 2, 2018

Retirement and Volunteering: What Do I Need To Know?


Volunteering is at the top of many retirees to-do list after leaving work. Studies make it clear that the desire to give back something to others and the community is a powerful force that brings all sorts of benefits to both the volunteers and the object of their help.

Over the 17 years of my retirement I have been deeply involved in prison ministry, the United Way, Junior Achievement teaching, lay ministry, and serving on the board of directors for the friends of the library organization in our town. Each has allowed me to use different skills or personality traits. Each has left a meaningful and lasting impression on me, and I hope, others.

Of course, many seniors cannot perform any type of physical volunteer work due to health limitations. If you are caring full time for a grandchild or two, enough free time may not be available. Volunteering is a gift we can give to others, but not one that need put ourselves in harm's way. There is absolutely no reason to feel guilty if active volunteering doesn't fit with your abilities or lifestyle. There are many other ways to give back to the community that could form the basis of a future post.

If you are able and motivated, volunteering brings some risks, or unintended consequences, that should be considered before raising your hand. One of the most common "mistakes" newly retired folks make is overcommitment. It is very easy to say "yes" too many times and find yourself as harried and pressed for time as you were before retirement. When you realize you bit off more than you can chew, you might experience a feeling of guilt for having to back away from something you agreed to do.


So, what are other some guidelines to consider before you join the ranks of retired volunteers?


1) Will a particular opportunity allow you to help a cause or organization you care deeply about? To volunteer just to do so usually doesn't work. There has to be a good fit between you and the organization you have agreed to help. If you have good feelings about the group's mission, if it pulls on your heartstrings,  you are much more likely to be satisfied by your donation of time and energy.

2) Will the time you are donating affect your life in a negative way? I don't mean in terms of less time available for television or reading or other leisure activities. Rather, if you are agreeing to give up several hours a week, or per day, will any important part of your life suffer? That could include key relationships or taking care of your health. It could leave you too tired to do other things that are important to you. Remember that some volunteer positions require training. That becomes part of your time donation, too.

3) Instead of a long term arrangement are you more comfortable with a series of one time activities? Over the years I have found several opportunities to help distribute registration kits for a 5k run, or help monitor the course of a fun run my grandson was part of. Each involved no more than 2 hours. I was able to help out on those one time events without a major commitment. 

4) Do you have the necessary skills to help both the organization and feel satisfied yourself? An example: I think the work that Habitat for Humanity does is tremendous. But, my skill set doesn't include building or remodeling homes. I have helped HFH a few times, but only on the end-of-project cleanup stage. I know my limitations. Know what you are singing up for before agreeing to help.

5) Following the previous point, will you be able to take a "trial run?" Can you attend a session, sit in on a class, or watch the work being done at the Food Bank before you agree to volunteer? I was set to help teach English to recent immigrants. After monitoring one class I decided not to proceed. Why? It was obvious that to truly help these folks I would have be very comfortable listening and responding in Spanish. I was disappointed but knew I would not be able to serve to these folks the way they deserved to be helped.





Share you stories of volunteering, both the ones that worked out well, and those that didn't. We learn from each other.


20 comments:

  1. Based on my own experience over the years, I'd agree that volunteering can be very rewarding ( in the non-monetary sense). However, it's saddens me to see that in the world we live in now, community agencies that serve children or seniors often require volunteers to submit to a police check to weed out anyone with a criminal record, especially sexual offences. So, instead of the main focus being on how a volunteer might help someone, the first order of business is to cover the agency's legal liability. If this screening was for a paid position, that would be one thing. But for a volunteer position, though I understand why it's done, I still find it very off putting. So now, rather than volunteer with an agency, I just lend a hand informally where I can in my local community.

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    1. I understand your reaction. It is unfortunate things have come to this. But, you might consider that your refusal to volunteer because of this new reality ends up hurting the people who could benefit from your involvement. And, if we put ourselves in their shoes, would we want our children interacting with someone who hasn't been fully vetted? I certainly would not.

      While the extra steps are required by law to protect the agency, they also protect the very people who need our help.

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    2. I have always almost had to have a background check. I don't particularly mind. This is to protect the vunerable populations I help with, who are often victims and more than once. I would not want someone volunteering with my kids or grandkids who had not had a background check, and I would not want someone coming into my home to help me (or be alone with me) who had not had a background check, especially if I were physically or mentally compromised. In most cases, the agency pays for said check, but even if I had to pay the thirty bucks, it would be worth it.

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  2. Living in a community split almost equally between retirees and non-retirees, the need for volunteers is great between the elderly, the poor, and the abused. Unfortunately with our travels for long periods of time, particularly during the winter months, my opportunities for volunteering are limited to a day here or there when it comes to volunteering my time.

    What I do is try to donate as many good quality goods as possible to four primary agencies 0 Habitat for Humanity, the local Rescue Mission, Avalon Center for women, and the Good Samaritans. That includes buying new merchandise for them that I know is required. In addition I apportion off a certain % of my stock option trades I make per year, and for those that I succeed at I give 10% to the two groups in particular that offer shelter, namely the Rescue Mission and Avalon (I try to make sure the ones I apportion for the 10% are more of slam dunks than some of the riskier ones I tackle).

    Wish I could do more, particularly with my time, but with the travels and maintaining a big house it doesn't leave as much as I would like in that regard.

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    1. We all must balance each segment of our life. If occasional part time help and financial commitments are where you and Deb are at the moment, feel good about what you are doing. Considering your sensitivity to the need, it is likely you will find more possibilities as travel slows down in your later years. But, your monetary support is certainly needed and appreciated (and generous!)

      This wasn't mentioned as a point above, but your comment offers me the chance to note that snowbirds can still be very welcome and needed as volunteers at their winter location. If living in Florida or Arizona or someplace sunny for the winter season, I imagine local food banks or other organizations would welcome a helping hand even if only for a few months.

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  3. Our community has a system for housing the people who choose to be on the street during the cold of winter. They house in Churches. I buy and cook a main dish of the meal twice a month at the Presbyterian Church. People love to bring in sweets and breads, do there is always plenty of those.
    That sucked me into working at the tiny food bank at our Church. We serve about 40 families and 20 homeless a month. I work in the sorting room and also do the monthly inventory. It was tough at first since most of the people who work there are food insecure themselves. Once I learned their needs, and made sure they were cared for, our stocking goes well. My favorite thing is to buy the eggs and cheese for the people coming in. So many are in need of simple proteins.
    My husband volunteered at the library to tutor in Math. He was constantly stood up--so he gave notice and left. Now he helps on the days at the food bank that we need his truck. It is all good.
    I am going to sign up for the Emergency Coordinator class at the local University next school year. Organization is key to getting things to people when they are tired and scared. I am pretty good in a crisis---so I think that will fit my talent.

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    1. Your husband's experience is not unique, unfortunately. Some groups need basic help in organization and management of resources. Your decision to take the class and use your management skills will certainly come in handy.

      One note: I'm not sure I would say people "choose to be on the street during the cold of winter." Bad luck, bad choices, medical or mental issues are likely culprits.

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    2. Thanks for the additional information. I can understand a fear of confined spaces or rules and regulations could cause someone to choose to be outside.

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  4. So many good points raised already. I'll add that once you volunteer regularly be prepared to ask to take on more for the same organization and make sure what you say yes to fits your talents, interests and time! It can be hard to stop volunteering once you are committed to the success of the organization. Also, be clear before starting to volunteer if you want something you can do from home (writing, researching, calls, etc.), by yourself at the organization or with a group of people. Or perhaps a mix of all of these. Having recently moved it was important to me to volunteer in ways that helped me make friends. It took some trial and error to find the right groups but the rewards are great.

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    1. You raise an important point: there are very important volunteer opportunities that can be taken care of at home. Our local United Way offers a literacy program for young children. The volunteer sits in front of a home computer and interacts, with a microphone and headphones, with a student. It is perfect for those who can't or choose not to leave their their home but still want to be involved.

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  5. Since I retired four years ago, I volunteer weekly at my local Humane Society. I enjoy helping the kitties and trying to get them adopted. I always feel good about my time spent there and would strongly encourage anyone who loves animals to donate or volunteer at their local shelter. I feel like my weekly commitment keeps me grounded and I like getting out and making a difference.

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    1. My youngest daughter spends her volunteer time with animal shelters and is pushing me and my wife to get involved, too. The need is great and the satisfaction is immediate.

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  6. Over time I've tried several volunteer positions. I enjoyed Ronald McDonald House (answering phones, making up rooms that turned over, cleaning up the kitchen after a group dinner, straightening the linen closet, etc.) and only quit when I returned to work. Then a Women's Resource Center where we helped women about to interview choose appropriate business attire from the racks of donated clothing...that was fun.

    Now that I've retired, I've settled into hospice work and I am really enjoying it. It's perfect for me and the time I have. The team is very professional and kind, and I've learned a lot in addition to finding kindred souls.

    I did try volunteering with the local Food Bank, but the work entailed standing on concrete floors for several hours sorting donated food into portions, etc, and one session was enough to see that it wasn't going to work with my back. So I'm glad I tried hospice.

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    1. I tried working at a Food Bank, too, and the standing and lifting wasn't making my body happy.

      I salute your hospice work. In my area there is a big need for hospice visitation volunteers. It takes a special mindset to be able to enter into a relationship with someone who is dying. I wonder if I'd be strong enough.

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  7. I enjoyed a career in nursing and office management so when I retired volunteering in an outdoors,nature situation was appealing. I took extensive training at our Botanical Gardens and became a docent.It afforded me the opportunity to meet people from all over the world! I tiried the library but I was not able to TALK! LOL!! When we were up in Pine we volunteered with a trail clean up crew. WE also prepare serve and clean up a dinner time at Paz de Christo , our homeless shelter in Mesa. Many many opportunities and such a need out there.I hope everyone with extra time can find something.It’s good for the soul!! I have a fingerprint clearance card from my nursing and real estate days.. but please don’t let that stop you— once you get it you have it forever.

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    1. You make a good point, Madeline. If you choose, volunteer work gives you the perfect chance to do something very different from your working days....like being outside instead at in an office, or vice versa. I think that is an excellent way to expand our abilities and discover new parts of ourselves.

      I am on the Board of Directors of the library Friends group, so we meet in a private room and talk for 60 minutes!

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  8. I am involved in a couple of volunteer and semi-volunteer activities, with a couple of other ideas in the wings. I think it's very important that we give to our community when we can.

    I do struggle with a bit of guilt though and wonder if I'm being a bit selfish when I say that I don't really want any of those activities to feel like too much work. I spent a fairly long career in a sometimes demanding setting, and now I want to pretty much call the shots and set my own schedule. Before taking on my most recent volunteer gig I did ask the woman I will be working with if she ever found the position to be stressful. Her answer was a resounding "no", so I guess that's on the right track! The nice thing is that if it does turn out to be something less than pleasant, I can easily move on to something else. The beauty of volunteering vs working.

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    1. Yes, volunteering isn't a strict commitment of time and activity. If things don't work, you are free to move on. Some of us like to break a sweat while helping, others are very happy to help with office work or a spreadsheet.

      I think we all have to try different volunteer/helping paths until something seems to fit both us and the organization.

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  9. During my first year of retirement, I followed through on a plan to volunteer at the local food bank, but it turned out not to be for me. I wasn't good at the kind of warehouse work the food bank needed volunteers for, and that work didn't draw on any of my skills. I quit after a few months when I found myself dreading my weekly food bank volunteer shifts.
    When I took my first class at the local Senior College (Maine's lifelong learning program) and discovered that Senior College is only as strong as the courses that are offered by volunteer teachers, I had found my niche. I not only love to teach; I'm good at it. I've been teaching one Senior College course each year.
    In my second year of retirement, I completed the training to become a Master Gardener Volunteer, which requires a minimum number of volunteer hours each year in approved projects to keep the Master Gardener certification. This year, I'll be meeting my volunteer commitment by teaching several gardening classes at the local Adult Education program, another good use of my teaching skills. And since I'm volunteering my time, those courses will be free for the adult learners.

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    1. Your experiences are excellent support for the idea that a volunteer (and the organization) benefit the most when skills match needs.

      BTW, except that Maine is quite a distance from Arizona and has a somewhat different climate, I could use your Master Gardener skills to help me figure out why certain plants in my yard just don't survive, even though they come highly recommended by the nurseries in the area.

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