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Finding Volunteer Work that Fits and Is Fulfilling

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: For five years I have successfully run a small satellite gift shop in a museum as a volunteer.  I consider it my work and passion, particularly since my husband died.  I was told last week that the satellite shop is closing in one week.  I am devastated.  Any advice?   I am 73.   

Answer: What a loss for you and the museum.  So where to go from here?  Consider rethinking what you want to do.  In an employment context, one calls this re-careering.  In the technical world it is re-engineering.  In a volunteer capacity, let’s call it review, research and repositioning.

In a 2006 Wall Street Journal article by Kelly Greene, John Gomperts, the chief executive of Washington, D.C-based  non-profit Experience Corps, was quoted as saying, “If you want (volunteering) to be a significant part of your life, then it’s likely going to take some work to figure out the right fit.” He adds that “Sometimes you take a very bumpy road to a very beautiful place.” Note that the road can begin with an interview conducted by someone less savvy than you.

Volunteering has benefits beyond fulfillment.  In the same article a study described 128 volunteers, aged 60 to 86, who worked with children in Baltimore schools.  Compared to a control group, the volunteers working with the children were in better health, burned more calories, watched less TV and reported having more people in their lives than those who did not volunteer.

Here is the good news:  The concept of volunteerism has expanded with new terminology, programs, legislation and recognition.

A little background
Boomers are playing a role in elevating volunteering in later life.  The first of 77 million boomers turned 60 in 2006; the oldest is now 63. One of their defining characteristics is the desire to move from success to significance.

The boom generation is redefining the meaning of retirement.  Large numbers want to engage in work, both paid and unpaid, that make a difference to others.  Many want second careers that combine aspects of work, such as income and health benefits, with good services. The term and movement “encore careers” describes this new hybrid of volunteering with income.

As the largest, healthiest and best-educated generation, boomers are a strong moving force. Fortunately, those of us who are a bit older benefit from their influence.

Civic engagement
Montana’s official Web site defines civic engagement as “leaving a positive legacy in the community” by taking responsibility for building communities, solving community problems and participating in the political process.

It is based on the premise that all citizens can contribute ideas, action and energy to improve the community.  It expands the role of volunteering with all parties winning.   Communities benefit from the talent, experience and energy of mid-life and older adults.  And mature adults have the opportunity to experience significance and meaning.

Civic Ventures

Civic Ventures is a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that has fostered and ignited civic engagement. Founded 10 years ago by social entrepreneur and author Mark Freedman, the organization works to define the second half of adult life as a time of individual and social renewal.  Thirty foundations, trusts and funds provide financial support.

The Civic Ventures website notes the “unleashing of a vast human potential is a social imperative.” What is required is a fresh attitude, with new policies and practices that welcome boomers and others who want work (paid or volunteer) to make a difference.

The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act signed into law by President Obama on April 21, represents a new chapter in spurring volunteerism among all ages.  Several of the law’s provisions target adults 55 and older.  Two new programs have been created by this act.

The Encore Fellowship program places midlife and older adults in leadership or management positions in public and nonprofit organizations for one year.  Ten Encore Fellows per state will receive $11,000 of a federal grant and matching funds from the host organization.

The Silver Scholarship program establishes awards of $1,000 toward education costs and tuition for people 55 and older who volunteer at least 350 hours per year.    The education awards are transferable to the volunteer’s children, grandchildren and foster children.

Avoiding the volunteer trap
In  the Wall Street Journal (April 24, 2006), reporter Kelly Greene asked retirement consultants, nonprofit executives and retirees how to avoid devoting time and energy to a dead-end position.  Here is their advice:
•    “Identify what inspires you.”
•    “Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom.”
•    “Know when to make a change.”
•    “Protect your time.”
•    “Look for good training.”
•    “Keep flexible.”

The value and recognition of volunteering has moved up several notches.  In the end, however, it is up to the individual to make the wise volunteer choice among the many and exceptional opportunities.

Here is a starting point.  The RSVP Retired and Senior Volunteer Program connects volunteers aged 55 and above with government and nonprofit organizations that are very much in need of assistance and support.  To find the RSVP near you, visit the Senior Service Corp website at, or telephone 800-313-8867.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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