If you google “retirement and volunteering” or some variation on that theme, you will find countless articles on the many places and organizations where you can volunteer. There are also numerous articles on how to supervise volunteers. But I’ve found there is very little for retired volunteers on how to avoid the pitfalls in volunteering.
When I retired, I knew that I wanted to volunteer, but beyond that, I was clueless. After two years of trials, tribulations, and some successes in volunteering, I’ve learned a few things that I can pass on. Here are some questions that will not only provide a roadmap for your volunteer journey but will help you when you find yourself taking a detour (and believe me, you will!).
Start at the 50,000 foot level – What do you want from your retirement? I recently read about a newly retired executive who was unhappy and dissatisfied in his retirement. He thought he’d never get tired of sleeping late and relaxing after he left his stressful career, but it didn’t take long for him to become bored with retired life. His wife enjoyed gardening but our executive thought it was too hot. He had never liked golf and he found that he missed solving problems. It is very apparent that Mr. Executive had never engaged in any kind of self-examination of his values, skills, or interests or what would make him happy in his retirement. It seems like a no-brainer and yet most people don’t do it. In my case, I knew from my almost 40 years in organizations and academia, that I wanted two things from my retirement, positive relationships and meaningful activity. Sounds simple right?
Translate your retirement mission into more specific objectives and responsibilities for volunteering. My lesson learned is to make sure you come back down to earth from those 50,000 feet and translate your desires into more specific objectives and responsibilities. I found my first volunteer job unintentionally from a referral by a member of my book club. I was invited to volunteer in a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting women in my county. I was very excited by this opportunity and jumped right in. It seemed like a great place to build new, positive relationships and do some good for women. While this organization does real good for women in the community, and I met some great women, my volunteer responsibilities were never fully defined. It soon became clear that my responsibilities were to do what I was told by the leaders with little opportunity for input or collaboration. That was a disappointment and not consistent with my retirement mission of positive relationships and meaningful activity. If I had pre-determined specific objectives and asked better questions at the onset of my volunteer job, I could have avoided some unpleasant experiences.
What skills and experiences do you want to contribute to your volunteer job? As I began to better define what “meaningful activity” looked like, I realized that I want to give back to my community in ways that would support women, children, animals, or in a couple of medical research areas. In addition, I want to apply skills I had developed throughout my career – writing, teaching, program development and management. Thankfully, my next volunteer opportunity gave me the perfect place and set of responsibilities for these skills. How did I know? The volunteer director sent me a list of job descriptions to choose from! Even if she hadn’t, I would have asked about the responsibilities, tasks, and activities involved. Even more important, I would have asked who would direct my activities and what his or her leadership approach involved. Working with a collaborative leader would meet my requirement for a positive, new relationship.
What don’t you want from your volunteer job? Think about the worst job you’ve ever had. What didn’t you like about that job? Below are some questions to think about to make sure you don’t pick the wrong volunteer job for you.
- How well are the tasks and responsibilities defined?
- How much time is needed to complete each required task? Am I willing to commit this amount of time?
- What skills are required to perform each task? Do I have these skills? Do I want to learn new skills?
- What resources will I be provided? Am I willing to commit my own resources?
- What training will I receive?
- Who directs and evaluates my work? How is my work evaluated? How will my work be recognized?
- What is my manager or director’s leadership style? What kind of leadership style is most comfortable for me?
- What kind of communication can I expect from my manager or director? How should I communicate with him/her?
- To what degree do I have input into how I accomplish my tasks?
- Will I enjoy my tasks and have fun?
Many retired folks view their volunteer job(s) as just as important as the paid jobs they left behind. If this is true for you, make sure you know yourself and your retirement goals very clearly. Then, look closely to see that your new volunteer job is a great match! Be mindful about your choices – our retirement journeys have the potential to be the happiest times of our lives!