Volunteering for Charity or Neighbors

New retirees have the time to sort out their options and settle into their new lifestyle, but they’re still learning how they want to spend that time.  It can take a few months to feel their way into a new routine with new activities.  However, many charities and non-profit organizations have become experts at recruiting these inexperienced retirees to their service. This may not be a bad idea if it’s part of your plan. Hopefully, you considered volunteer service as part of the thought and discussions with your family and friends during the months before your retirement.

The good part of volunteering allows you to reconnect with family and community through a fulfilling mission. You’re “giving back” and “paying it forward” for those who invested in you (even if it didn’t look like such a hot investment at the time). The challenge of volunteering is that you can easily over-commit yourself and end up rushing among your new obligations. (Just as you used to work long hours on your military missions.)

If you’ve volunteered with an organization before retirement then this is a chance to become even more involved. But if you’ve never worked with a particular group before (or never even had the time to volunteer) then move slowly and do your research. Think about how you’d like to spend your time and why you want to volunteer. Look at the group’s website and annual reports to see how they spend your donations. Talk to other volunteers, especially those who’ve moved on to other activities and can speak freely about their old organization. Watch other volunteers to see how they’re being treated. Visit a charity’s offices to get an eye-opening glimpse of their staff and their work. See if they offer “free trials” or if they’ll let you work with them an hour or two a week before you make a bigger commitment. You don’t want to leap in and then discover that you’re burning out on something less rewarding than you expected.

Even if you think the charity is a good one, you may feel differently about the beneficiaries. Several retirees from all over the country have admitted that they’ve faced this surprise while volunteering for a home-building organization. The charity is organized and does a great job, both for their beneficiaries and their volunteers. However, the volunteers were often confronted with an attitude of entitlement from the beneficiaries.  In some cases, the volunteers even felt as if they were wasting their time on unappreciative complainers.  It was at odds with the volunteers’ own values and made for a very uncomfortable, even cynical, working relationship. Hopefully, this is an isolated case.

Before you start to work with a charity, take a moment to think about how long you want to continue the relationship. Do you see yourself still volunteering there six months from now? Two years? Ten years? What do you expect could cause you to burn out? You don’t have to discuss your thoughts with the charity, but have a clear plan in mind on what you’re willing to tackle and for how long you’re willing to be there.

Don’t enter the commitment until you’ve thought about your exit strategy. If the inevitable surprises aren’t acceptable then you can make a graceful exit on good terms instead of abruptly quitting. Better yet, each volunteer stint helps you learn about more volunteer opportunities with other organizations, and a less-than-enjoyable organization could lead to a long-term relationship with a wonderful group.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t feel like giving your time just yet. You don’t have to set an example anymore, or at least not yet.  You’re just figuring out what you want to do with the rest of your life, and it may take months or even years before you feel as if you’ve figured out your own priorities.  Frankly, if you’ve just entered military retirement from a combat zone then it may be a while before you feel a sense of benevolence toward helping other humans.  Don’t immediately replace your military missions with a volunteer mission, either.  Take the time to explore your options and thoughtfully choose one or two activities that interest you.  There’s no need to recreate your work environment.

Don’t feel limited to volunteering your time, either.  You could just as easily serve your favorite causes by donating money or possessions. You certainly may not want to spend long hours on a commute into the city during rush hours or wear uncomfortable clothes or work under miserable conditions– this is service, not penance.  A charity’s particular mission or beneficiaries or volunteers may not be a good fit with you, but you may find another group that’s worthy of your financial donation.  You might not enjoy working at a homeless shelter, but if you can build furniture or sew quilts then they’ll be just as appreciative.

As you spend more time in your neighborhood, everyone will learn of your new retiree status. It’s a great way to reconnect and become more involved with the community, but don’t be exploited. It’s common to hear “Hey, you’re retired, you have the time, and you could help us with this!” It’s nice to be invited, but there may also be the implication that your retired time as worthless as your skills and experience are always available to help others. They may mean well but they may not appreciate that you’re already busy. From their work-related perspective, they may naïvely believe that your retirement frees up at least 40 hours a week to help other workers who are struggling to meet their obligations.

There’s no need to be offended by mistaken ignorance, but set limits and be firm about what you can or can’t do. Help as much as you want but be clear when you need to take care of your own chores or spend time with family. Even after you retire, you still have a right to enjoy your own personal time!

Related articles:
Help choose the military charities receiving donations from “The Military Guide” sales
More military charities for “The Military Guide” royalties
Retirement: don’t recreate your old environment
Retirement: relax, reconnect and re-engage

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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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