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“To share often and much . . . .

To know even one life

has breathed easier because you have lived,

this is to have succeeded.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

in Random Acts of Kindness

You may love to work, but not want a job and certainly not a boss.  Volunteering your time informally or through any of a multitude of organizations can provide most of the benefits of work while maintaining control and flexibility.  Volunteering is a chance to use your skills and may provide a new network of regular contacts.

The stereotype is that volunteering involves boring, unskilled work:  stuffing envelopes for a charity fundraiser, driving little old ladies to doctors’ appointments, organizing a rummage sale, or knocking on doors for a political candidate.  These are all worthwhile and possibly enjoyable, but they are not your only options. Many really challenging opportunities are also available.

Because the work is voluntary, you have the freedom to choose what works best for you.  With a bit of research and negotiating, you can find something that incorporates:

  • Flexible hours
  • Opportunity to gain new skills (e.g., setting up a Web site for a community group or organizing an event)
  • Location close to home (or even work from home)
  • Sharing work with a team
  • Chance to travel

A recent study in Australia found that volunteers were among the most satisfied people in the country. They expressed happiness with their activities, work hours, a sense of connectedness to their community, and spirituality.  The ability to tailor an unpaid placement to your personal interests and aptitudes is one of the reasons that volunteering offers a high level of satisfaction. Here are some examples:

  • A professor with a life-long interest in film starts a local program to introduce aspiring film-makers to aspects of video-production. He successfully involves local professionals in this venture.
  • H’Art is a program where volunteers involve adults with intellectual disabilities in painting, dancing, literacy and computer skills.
  • A former teacher sees a need in the schools and initiates a program that will grow to 1400 volunteers helping school children learn new concepts in language and math.
  • A retired veterinarian becomes active in a veterinary medical association. One of his most important initiatives is to establish a veterinary reserve that will mobilize the profession to provide expertise and services in response to animal health emergencies.
  • An amateur cook who loves experimenting with new recipes takes on the task of preparing healthy frozen meals for a hates-to-cook friend with diabetes. The cook is building a collection of recipes that he hopes to eventually publish as a fundraiser for a local branch of the diabetes association.
  • An amateur musician helps with organizing a local children’s choir and serves as a flautist for the group.
  • A retired business man offers support, advice and mentoring to business start-ups.
  • A semi-retired woman devotes two hours each week to helping someone learn to read as part of a local literacy program.
  • A former nurse and college administrator finds that she has become an invaluable resource for an agency running group homes for the elderly.
  • A retired couple help run a local food bank through their church. Along with a number of other church members, they are part of a year-round rotation that keeps the food bank operational. Teams take turns handling donations and organizing distribution.
  • An interior decorator uses her skills to transform a local women’s shelter.   She successfully involves family, friends and local businesses in the initiative.
  • A man with a keen interest in history volunteers to be an exhibit interpreter for a museum exhibit on the Vikings.
  • A professional historian offers his services to a local group restoring and researching the background of a heritage property in the community.
  • A writer helps prepare public relations materials and a newsletter for a hospice in her community.
  • A retired accountant helps low-income and people with disabilities prepare their income tax returns.

International Opportunities

Volunteering is gaining popularity among retirees who want their travel experiences to be something more than sight-seeing and sitting on a beach.

Executive Service Corps, British Executive Services (BESO) and Canadian Executive Services Organization (CESO)  are examples of charitable organizations of experienced executives who offer their time as community advisors in areas such as financial management, business development and governance. Thousands of volunteers serve as mentors, advisors and trainers in areas including tourism, banking, information management and community planning. Volunteers give their time and expertise for a few weeks, while their travel costs and living expenses are covered.

A Personal Note

As a volunteer member of Canadian Executive Services Organization (CESO), I have mentored Inuit management trainees in Iqaluit, overhauled information management practices for a native office in Quebec, advised on the business plan for an on-line clearinghouse of tools for early childhood education for aboriginals, and reviewed a housing program.  These projects helped me to freshen up and better appreciate my skills.

My most exotic posting was three months in Kingston, Jamaica where I taught internal financial auditors at a university how to do a management audit of their use of technology.  I received no payment, but all expenses for my husband and me were covered.  We got to know Jamaica and Jamaicans as no tourist ever could!


Cross Cultural Solutions has designed one of its programs specifically to attract volunteers who are over fifty.  This agency places individuals in countries such as India, Ghana, Peru, China, Russia, Thailand, and Costa Rica.  Although expenses are not covered, the placements provide a unique opportunity for immersion in a different culture and making a difference in the world.

The Virtuous Vacation

For two work-filled weeks we volunteered at a Costa Rican school — and in trying to teach the kids, we learned even more about ourselves. 

Not only are we here by choice, but we’ve paid almost $2,500 each for the privilege. We’re among the many Americans who are trading sightseeing for service, and immersing themselves in a country and its people.

“Most people who come here never see the real country,” says Jose Ugalde, CCS’s country director. “They arrive, they get on an air-conditioned bus, they go to an air-conditioned resort.” 

            Ken Bud in The Virtuous Vacation

Going Local

Most communities offer an abundance of rewarding opportunities for volunteers. The request could be as simple as regularly assisting a friend or neighbor, organizing an annual community clean-up or serving on the board of a non-profit organization. Theatre companies, arts cooperatives, sports teams, musical groups and civic clubs may all potentially help you meet a personal goal or learn new skills.

The most important aspect of successfully volunteering is finding a good match between your interests and the kind of work that needs doing.  You don’t need to bring your unique skills to a particular project (although that may be ideal) – you may volunteer because you want a change and a new social context or want to feel that you are contributing to the community.

Volunteering can be rewarding and energizing, but it should fit well with your lifestyle and expectations. If you are looking for two hours each week with no strings attached, then helping at a local hospital or driving for Meals on Wheels could be ideal. If you are looking for more involvement in a community of like-minded people or for a situation where you can really make use of your skills, you may need to work at identifying an ideal placement.

On Giving Too Much

Volunteering may sound noble and selfless, but mainly it should be personally rewarding. Like employment, every relationship includes an implicit contract with expectations on all sides. Hard feelings arise when these expectations are not met. Satisfaction is far more likely if you are clear within yourself on what you expect in return and you communicate these expectations.

In some cases, volunteers are pushed to take on more work than they can comfortably handle – particularly if their skills are much in demand. At the other end of the spectrum are volunteers whose efforts are taken for granted.  Both situations can lead to frustration and burnout.

Tips for Volunteering

  • Consider the skills you have to offer.
  • Focus on causes that are important to you.
  • Look for a volunteer opportunity that can help you achieve a personal goal.
  • If you volunteer with an agency, don’t be put off by the request for an interview or security check.  These indicate that the agency takes their volunteers seriously.  Chances are an interview will also give you an opportunity to explore whether or not the volunteer placement is a good fit for you.
  • If you don’t want to commit your time to volunteering on a regular basis, consider helping out as a volunteer occasionally at a church fundraiser or community event.


When Life Volunteers You

Return to Chapter 9


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