Charitable work can be done at any age or stage in life — but finding the right opportunity can fuel a person’s purpose in retirement.
Sometimes, investing your time in a charity can turn into a second career, as was the case for Shirley Acevedo Buontempo, 56, who started her nonprofit in education eight years ago after a career in marketing and advertising. For others, it’s finding volunteer work that is fulfilling, and perhaps demanding. Georgette Bennett, 72, founder of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, said it’s akin to finding the right job. “Volunteer work is really a process,” she said.
There are numerous ways in which someone can become more involved in volunteer or charity work: for example, leadership, consulting or direct services with clients, like building a home or walking the dogs at an animal shelter. Nonprofits can use all kinds of help, including organizationally and managerially, as well as through raising awareness.
There are opportunities in most, if not all, fields — and almost always a way to help others. “People often find what catches their hearts,” said Barbara Quaintance, vice president for enterprise award strategy at AARP. Sometimes that interest comes from a personal experience, like a cancer scare, or noticing someone in need in the community, she said.
Buontempo and Bennett were two of the five recipients of AARP’s Purpose Prize Award, which honors people aged 50 and older who have given their time and resources to helping others.
Buontempo, who was the first person in her family to go to college, is the founder and chief executive officer of Latino U College Access (LUCA), an organization that helps first-generation Latino students enroll in and graduate from college. “It is my love for my students and the families we serve that keep me going every day and every night,” she said. “You need to have sincere, authentic passion because you will be sacrificing a great deal.”
LUCA is her and her family’s way of making a difference, but one day she will step down as CEO of the organization, and plans to volunteer with the group or serve on its board of directors, she said.
Look here for volunteer options
Retirees can find volunteer gigs in a few ways.
If they have a group in mind, they can reach out directly, or they can search for opportunities on sites like VolunteerMatch.com and Idealist.com (volunteer opportunities on the latter are listed under “Actions”). The Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps, manages Senior Corps, which has opportunities for Americans specifically 55 years and older. AARP also has a program to connect retirees with volunteering opportunities at CreateTheGood.
These sites not only offer more predictable opportunities such as reading or legal aid but also some quirkier options. Think joining the “digital fraud fighters” to help AARP debunk the latest scams targeting older Americans or restoring a historic fleet of ships at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York.
People can look for opportunities in a field they’ve always been interested in but never pursued as a career, or they can expand upon their expertise, such as in law, finances and medicine. “They have a lifetime of skill to help solve those problems” Quaintance said.
There are many types of volunteers at LUCA: some work directly with the students as a college coach, and they’re trained to be a mentor during the application process. She also has volunteers who do technical work, data management and financial aid assistance.
At Bennett’s organization, which is an interfaith group addressing the needs of those affected by the Syrian crisis, volunteers can write postcards to send a message of hope to Syrian families, pack medical supplies to send to hospitals and host welcome dinners for new refugees in their areas.
What can go wrong
But for volunteers to be the right fit, they’ll need to be committed, Bennett said. “They need to approach it like a real job,” Bennett said. That means dedicating their time to a schedule, showing up when they’re expected, and supplying a specific set of skills. When volunteers dip in and out of work, “that creates more work for an organization than it does provide help to an organization,” she said.
Organizations, and the people they serve, rely on volunteers, Quaintance said. At a local AARP program in Chicago called Experience Corps., where older people tutor children in literacy through third grade, volunteers take their jobs seriously, Quaintance said. “They would say, no storm will keep them away,” she said.
Potential volunteers should avoid ill-defined job descriptions, which could leave them with insufficient preparation and unmet expectations. They may also need to shift their perspective if they’re going directly from having a full-time job to volunteering. Retirement, in general, takes an adjustment.
Finding the right volunteer work may take some time, but it can also be rewarding — especially when it is attached to something personal to the volunteer. Bennett, who is the child of Holocaust survivors and a refugee herself, focuses her charity work on conflict resolution and intergroup relations. “I understand what it means to lose your roots,” she said. “I am in a position where I can give back, and I do.”