By: Robert Laura
Many people plan to do some form of volunteering after they retire. It’s such a popular topic that I spend more time discussing it during my Naked Retirement workshops than many of the other, more traditional hot topics including health care costs, adult children, and running out of money. It all starts with a very unassuming question from our retirement perceptions quiz:
A local organization is in desperate need of help. You’re touched and call to offer one of the following items. Which one are you most likely to provide?
a. Money, food and clothing
b. Knowledge and other information
c. Personal skill
d. Physical labor
It’s a pretty basic question but its true intent becomes clear when I ask participants why they selected their answer. Typically, most respondents lack any real feeling or oomph. Oftentimes, the answer du jour is, “Well, that’s what I have always done,” or “I’ll figure it out when I have more time.” The problem is too many people go into volunteering with only general assumptions or vague thoughts about how their work skills will transfer. They’re fuzzy on how rewarding, or in some cases unfulfilling, it can actually be. In fact, not all forms of volunteering are fun, enjoyable or rewarding. That’s a nice way of saying all forms of volunteering are not fun, enjoyable or rewarding, and those who are unprepared may find themselves feeling guilty, drained, and even like they’d rather be back at work than “helping out.”
It turns out, the very things you did while working don’t always translate into volunteer success. For example, a social worker in one of my workshops had recently retired. She felt compelled to do so because she was burnt out from all the heartache and stress caused by her job. Yet, after six months of retirement, she was bored and decided to put her people skills back to work by volunteering in - of all places - social work. Guess what? Within three months she was burnt out again … and this time she didn’t get paid for her aggravation. Worse yet, she felt trapped and guilty about quitting because they were understaffed.
Another case-in-point demonstrates the flip side of the story. A retiring school administrator who planned to volunteer with Habitat For Humanity made her intentions clear from the beginning. In retirement, she was determined to be a part of something that had definitive start and end dates, and a finished product to see and touch. This contrasted with her work life. Whether it was curriculums, school policies, or one of a hundred other responsibilities, there was always something to update, review, or improve. She never felt anyting ever got finished.
The difference between these two examples is that the administrator took the vagueness out of volunteering by having a specific purpose. She filled a void that was present in her career; whereas the social worker simply acted out of boredom and tried to match old skills to new needs.
Other examples include retirees who stood ringing a bell in freezing temperatures without much Christmas cheer; those who got yelled at for calling attention to the poor quality of the food they were packing and preparing for others; and the top-notch professional who couldn’t help transform a local non-profit because of cost constraints and other obstacles. While volunteering shouldn’t be perceived as an easy path to feeling better about yourself by helping others, there are several things retirees are encouraged to do in order to make the experience and opportunity more satisfying:
Begin With The End In Mind
Set realistic expectations for your role with the organization. That means asking about an exit strategy in case you feel uncomfortable or if it doesn’t match your skills, causes a physical challenge, or doesn’t meet other expectations. By having a process to either communicate these issues or, if necessary, resign your position, both staff and retirees can get on the same page instead of allowing assumptions to dictate the direction of the relationship.
Figure Out What Distresses You
One way to better define how and where you want to spend your time is to ask yourself, “what disturbs you?” What stresses you out and causes you to think, “I need to do something about that.” Answers to these questions can give your volunteer efforts more feeling and purpose. With these key points in mind, retirees will be positioned to seek out organizations that fit their needs.
Volunteer organizations are like most other groups. They’re not perfect. They’re often run on tight budgets, with grants that come and go year-to-year. There will be issues with staffing, space, and equipment. You should be able to see the flaws, challenges and other deficiencies without looking too hard. However, by acknowledging the challenges, preparing yourself to adapt, and helping the organization manage those factors, the time and energy you put into it won’t seem wasted if things don’t go as you hoped. With realistic expectations and a mindset to work through any issues at hand, you can have an impact right away … precisely when it’s needed most.
Overall, retirement can be the ideal time to become a resource and guiding light for people in need. While every little bit counts, don’t think you have to maintain an 8-10 hour work schedule, or jump at every opportunity to be busy and useful. By developing an exit strategy, figuring out what distresses you, and being realistic about the role you play within the organization, you can make volunteering a great way to replace your work identity, fill your time meaningfully, and have a positive impact on others.