Congratulations! You have worked tirelessly for 35-40 years and, at last, you are anticipating retirement. How do you feel about the prospect of retiring? What do you want to do with your time? How will you create a sense of meaning and purpose that energizes and excites you?
One possibility you may be considering is actively volunteering in your community. However, you may (or may not) know how or where to begin. This is my story about making that transition, which hopefully will help guide you in making your own retirement decisions.
Shortly after retiring, when the new chapter of my life began to reveal itself, I knew that I needed to get serious about how I wanted to spend my retirement. Because I am a list maker, I began the process by writing down everything I like to do in my spare time. Then, I prioritized each item. My list looked something like this:
- Exercise daily
- Travel extensively (U.S. and Europe)
- Entertain friends and family
- Participate in the arts
- Volunteer for a worthwhile organization
After considering my background and identifying the skills that I wanted to use, I made a list of volunteer organizations that interested me. Then, I literally did my homework by talking with employees and volunteers in the various organizations.
Since I taught at a university for more than 30 years, I knew that I enjoyed working with the 20-something population. I made a list of possible community organizations that worked with people in their twenties. When I found what I thought would be an excellent “fit,” I spoke with the volunteer coordinator, who informed me that I first needed to complete 15 hours of training. Immediately, I was impressed. If their leaders were willing to invest that much time in training volunteers, then working with the organization should be worthwhile.
When I arrived for my first training session, I noticed I was the youngest person in the room. My first thought was “Am I going to fit in with the rest of the volunteers and what duties and responsibilities are expected of me?”
As I continued the training, I began to experience a sinking feeling. I mistakenly thought I would be working face-to-face with young adults–welcoming them to my city and telling them about local events they could attend. Instead, the job seemed to be little more than glorified housekeeping. I knew we had a problem when the trainer said to our group, “Of course, the primary responsibilities of your job are to make sure the area is kept clean, food supplies are stocked, floors are vacuumed daily, etc.” I literally said to myself, “YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT?” This wasn’t the job I signed up for.
Since I’m not a quitter, I finished the 15-hour training session and casually asked the trainer if anyone to date had completed the training and then decided NOT to volunteer. When she responded, “No,” I thought to myself, “I guess somebody has to be first and that person is going to be me.”
When I contacted the volunteer coordinator to tell her I changed my mind, she asked me why. I proceeded to tell her that the duties and responsibilities were not what I expected. The position simply wasn’t the right FIT.
I learned so much from this experience:
- Don’t confuse what you are trained to do with what you WANT to do.
- Think about what you have to offer and what you are willing to do, and clearly communicate that information to the volunteer coordinator.
- Conduct a face-to-face interview with the coordinator before making a commitment. Include such questions as, “What are you looking for in a volunteer? What duties and tasks would I be expected to complete? Please tell me about the people with whom I would be working? Who would supervise my work, and what should I know about this person?”
As I shared with you earlier, if you are willing to volunteer with an organization, you need to think carefully about what you want from the experience as well as the skills that you want to use. Ask yourself questions such as:
- Am I truly passionate about the organization’s mission?
- Do my personal volunteer goals align with the organization’s goals?
- How much time am I willing to invest in volunteering for this organization?
- What am I interested in doing, and what are my “non-negotiables?”
The next step in the process was continuing my search, this time for the right volunteer fit. However, sometimes the right opportunity presents itself when you’re not expecting it. At least that’s what happened to me.
About a year ago, a friend and I visited a new museum in our city called “Voices,” a multicultural center dedicated to representing cultural groups that have shaped the history of the city. Turns out, another friend of mine was the assistant curator of the museum, so I asked if he was available to give us a tour. Happily, he was free. When he showed us the oral history area and talked about the facility not being “up to par,” I mentioned that I had been trained to interview people for oral histories and had contacts at the local NPR station. When his response was, “Would you consider helping us with oral histories and when can you start?,” I knew this was the right volunteer opportunity for me. My career involved teaching at the local university, and I maintained my contacts after retiring. Capturing oral histories involves working with local personalities in the area to tell their stories. Interviews are videotaped at the radio station on campus. The job would involve researching, contacting, and interviewing local people, and I could volunteer as much or as little as I wanted. The person to whom I would report was the assistant curator himself, who is a joy to work with. This opportunity had all the elements for which I was looking.
The moral of the story is to find the right fit. Great volunteer opportunities rarely fall into your lap by accident. You have to seek them out. Be curious. Be proactive. Be selective.
I hope this story helps you find the best volunteer opportunity for you. When you find the right fit, you undoubtedly will be a happy, productive volunteer.