Should You Volunteer After Retirement?

Here’s what to consider when weighing your options

Throughout the country, millions of people have found fulfillment donating their time to causes and organizations whose missions interests them. The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency that finances and runs AmeriCorpsSenior Corps, the Volunteer Generation Fund, and others, estimates that more than 64 million Americans volunteer nearly 8 billion hours each year.

A recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center reported that two-thirds of respondents ages 55 to 70 who hadn’t yet retired said they plan to spend more time volunteering in retirement.

By helping others, volunteers not only contribute untold value to their chosen organizations, but they also reap benefits themselves. Studies have connected volunteering with reduced depression and enhanced brain activity. Active volunteering also correlates with living longer, healthier, more meaningful lives.

“The biggest thing is to find an opportunity that suits you,” Samantha Warfield, a spokeswoman for the CNCS, told Consumer Reports. “Do what you’re passionate about.” 

In many cases, finding the right volunteer work isn’t so different from seeking a job that pays. Here are factors to consider.

Capitalize on your background—or not. When you contact an organization, mention the skills honed in your career. However, be aware that the very things you did while working won’t always translate into volunteer success, says Robert Laura, retirement expert and Forbes columnist. He talks about a recently retired social worker who was burnt out from all the heartache and stress caused by her job. Yet, after six months of retirement, she was bored, so she put her people skills back to work by volunteering in the very sector she’d left: social work. Not surprisingly, within three months she was burnt out again—and not even getting paid. Worse yet, she felt guilty about quitting because they were understaffed.

Take another direction. A retiring school administrator wanted 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 past work life that consisted of policies, curriculums, and procedures needing constant reviews, updates, and revisions. Nothing ever got finished. She signed up with Habitat for Humanity, whose mission is focused on building (and completing) physical structures to shelter real families.

What do you care about? To define how and where you want to spend your time, ask yourself, “What do I want do something about?” What do you want to change? What issues and conditions bother you? Your answers can give your volunteer efforts more purpose. You will be positioned to seek organizations that fit your goals and offer you the chance to make a difference in ways that matter to you.

Start small. Begin volunteering in brief stints—an hour per week reading to a preschooler or two hours in a food bank. If you’re tentative, bring along a friend for support. Keep in mind that that as a “newbie,” you may not get the plum assignments right away. Also, keep asking yourself, Is this the work I want to do?

Don’t forget an “exit strategy.” Your role with the organization may or may not turn out as you’d envisioned. Before you sign on, ask about the organization’s exit strategy in case you feel uncomfortable, the work doesn’t match your skills or interests, causes physical challenges, or doesn’t meet other expectations. A process to communicate your concerns or, if necessary, resign your position allows both you and the staff to make changes or to part ways without hard feelings and misunderstandings. 

How to find opportunities. Ask for recommendations from friends, family, and colleagues, check the websites of organizations of interest, or use search engines to find the types of volunteer opportunities available. Start with the websites VolunteerMatch.orgServe.gov, and for a long-term, full-time commitments, NationalService.gov.