Volunteering in Retirement: How to Make a Difference
In the course of a lifetime, in terms of work and non-work, we all acquire a huge amount of knowledge, experience, skills, trades and wisdom.
Just because we are entering retirement and giving up paid work is no reason why we shouldn’t still get to use some of those skills, and why others shouldn’t benefit from them.
It is a great chance to ‘give back’.
So if you're interested in contributing to your community, read on to learn more.
Opportunities for volunteering
We probably have skills that we don’t even think of as skills.
Being good at admin may feel like just what you do, but can be incredibly valuable to others, as can basic computing ability.
Getting on well with people is another.
Are you a natural leader or a behind the scenes sort of person? It doesn’t matter, there are places for both.
Anyone who is good with figures will always be in demand.
Are you an outdoors person? Do you prefer outdoor physical activities? The list is endless.
If you are thinking of volunteering, it is a good idea to think about these kind of things – don’t just think about what your day job entailed, but the wider aspects of your working life.
The sky is practically the limit when we think of the number and range of volunteering opportunities out there.
It really isn’t a question of what can I do and what is out there, but how do you decide. That is assuming of course that you want to do some voluntary work.
“I’m not sure I’ve got any useful skills”
That is a phrase I hear a lot. But you don’t need to have had a high-powered job or be a retired professional to have skills that can be useful.
My partner’s mother worked in a baker’s shop for years.
She loved it, particularly chatting to the customers, but she was very sharp at mental arithmetic even in her 80s, knew the price of everything, and could sell anything to anyone.
She wasn’t sure when I asked her to help with catering at a local dog show until I said she would be helping with sandwich sales. Her eyes lit up!
On the day she cleared the decks. Even though we had run out of certain things, she still sold a sandwich to everyone, even if it wasn’t quite what they came for.
And she took so much money – all correctly balanced of course.
What was really important was that she had a great day out, really enjoyed herself, and had plenty to talk about to her friends.
Volunteering should always be two-way: she provided much-needed support to an event, but she came away feeling she had been really useful.
How much time do you have to spare/want to commit?
Beware of overcommitting particularly in the early days of retirement.
Weigh up what your other commitments are, and don’t forget to factor in some downtime, chance to do what you want to do.
Don’t ever feel guilty about those morning coffee or lunch outings!
Some people might find it more convenient to make a regular commitment, with a set time each week/month, while others might prefer to be more flexible.
Whatever you want there will certainly be no shortage of opportunities, both short- and long-term.
Ideas based upon your interests
If you are going to be doing some voluntary work, and giving up precious retirement time to do it, then it should be something that really interests you.
Were there aspects of the day job that you particularly enjoyed, or felt you were particularly good at?
If the day job required you to do certain tasks that you managed but felt weren’t your forte, why would you want to consider those when you don’t have to. Be selective.
Remember you are committing to something as a volunteer.
You want to feel useful and that you are making a contribution but it is important that you enjoy and that it proves a positive experience.
It may be, of course, that you decide to volunteer in an area completely unrelated to your day job – maybe something that you have always been interested in but never had the chance or time to pursue.
We will look at some of these options below:
Working with animals
If you are an animal lover then there are endless opportunities, either in the background or very hands-on.
Animal rescue centres always need help in multiple ways: dog walking; cleaning kennels or cat pens; fostering animals; providing safe gardens for hedgehog release. The list goes on.
If you are a horse lover, then helping with Riding for the Disabled may be a hugely rewarding experience as youngsters and adults, often with learning or physical disabilities, come alive on the back of a horse.
If you have a well-behaved dog that has a great temperament, then maybe you could consider whether it would make a PAT (Pets as Therapy) Dog, going into hospitals and nursing homes, or even schools.
It is hard to put into words the joy stroking a dog can bring. (This is one area where training would be required).
Perhaps you no longer have a dog of your own and really miss those walks on the park. Maybe you could offer to walk a dog for a friend or neighbour.
I have had my last three dogs from a very special animal rescue centre in Leicestershire.
I have volunteered for them over the years in a variety of ways, including helping design a Calendar; writing a history of the organization to mark 50 years; fundraising; and setting up and running a club for juniors.
You don’t need to have worked in a shop to volunteer in one of the many charity shops that are now found in every town.
An interest in the cause would be important but really you just need to be a people person.
Training would always be given in use of tills etc.
This would be a great option if you like being part of a team.
Apart from shop work mentioned above, there are lots of ways you can maintain contact with people in retirement.
Many libraries are now run in part by volunteers; food banks have an increasingly important place in society, and roles might include liaison with local shops/collection points, working with other volunteers to bag up and distribute food parcels.
If you can drive, you might like to consider a volunteer driver role (taking patients for hospital appointments etc). Other areas would need specific training and probably a more formal application process. Examples of these would be Samaritans; Citizens Advice Bureau.
Chatting to stroke patients and helping them learn to speak again can be a hugely rewarding activity. Dementia cafes are springing up in many towns and again serve a vital role for patients and their carers/partners.
If you have a local talking newspaper for the benefit of visually impaired people in your area, they may well need people to read articles. If you are a church-goer, then joining things like the flower arranging rota might suit.
Hospices are heavily reliant on volunteers and this may involve patient contact. Children’s clubs are often volunteer-run.
Steam railways are very heavily reliant on volunteers from rebuilding locos, to laying tracks, to manning the ticket office, or serving refreshments on board.
In my ‘spare time’ I run a literary Festival (Evesham Festival of Words).
Volunteers who will meet and greet, serve refreshments, help set up rooms and clear away afterwards, are vital to us.
And behind the scenes folk who are happy to make cakes for us to serve at events are a real asset.
I did a great trade with a local WI group – I did a talk for them and didn’t charge a fee. In exchange they supplied me with a load of fabulous home-made cakes! Bartering is always fun!
We have an incredibly talented graphic designer who does all our design work on a voluntary basis. We couldn’t operate without all this unpaid help. But I have probably just scratched the surface: the list really does go on and on.
If you have an interest in a particular sport then there may well be opportunities to referee or coach. Or you may like to help with cricket teas.
The Park Runs, which now operate on a Saturday morning in virtually every town around the country, cover both adults and juniors.
This has been an incredibly successful initiative with huge numbers taking part each week.
None of this would be possible without the volunteers marking up the courses, marshalling, recording entrants, plotting results etc.
If you like running events but can’t imagine taking part then marshalling can be really good fun, even if the weather is “a bit inclement”.
Having recently marshalled for Leicester Half Marathon, it was very unclear who got the coldest and wettest – the runners taking part on an absolutely foul day, or the marshals who had to stand on the spot for several hours.
Conservation and environmental projects
If this is an area of interest, then keep your eyes open locally:
- Village ponds and canals often need clearing out; walls and fences may need repairing.
- Footpaths may benefit from clearing.
- Litter picking is becoming an increasingly popular pursuit.
One project I was involved with has been working to clear/enhance/develop the site of the once great Abbey of Evesham.
This has involved a wide range of activities: ivy clearing from walls; removal of rubbish from site; demolition of old sheds; levelling of ground etc.
Quite hard physical work at times but in a stunning setting and working with a great team of volunteers.
I know several people who were involved in town planning in their day jobs. They have found a real niche in helping local societies with review of planning applications.
Bulb planting in your local area can be chilly exercise in winter but the joy of seeing the flowers in bloom in the spring is a huge reward.
My Running Club plants a load of daffodils each year around the village where we run – the locals love them. And it puts a spring in our step.
If you happen to like toads (and I personally really don’t), then helping with the annual toad migrations might be just up your street.
At breeding time, toads will cross busy roads in really big numbers, and there is a real risk that many of them will end up squashed on the road.
So volunteers who turn out to gather them up into buckets and safely transport them across roads do a great job.
I always weep whenever I watch the TV programme DIY SOS.
To see the huge number of tradespeople who willingly give up their time to help with some of the projects undertaken is truly humbling.
Sometimes they have a specific reason, sometimes not.
But to take part in a project like that would be amazing.
Even if you’re not a plasterer or an electrician, then keeping the workers supplied with tea and bacon butties would be great fun and hugely rewarding.
Many charities and organisations rely heavily on fundraising to support their activities.
This might involve writing grant applications, running fundraising events, carrying out street collections.
If you have any experience in this area, you will be welcomed with open arms.
If you don’t want to organize an event then taking part in sponsored runs/walks/bike rides/parachute jumps/walks on hot coals may suit you, though it is difficult to constantly ask the same small group of family or friends to sponsor you. It sometimes helps if you can think of a different angle.
With a lot of help and encouragement from my last dog, I organized a very successful sponsored doggy walk.
Spike applied himself to produce all the publicity material: it was him not me that invited folk (two and four-legged) to take part.
And he sent round a really moving letter to everyone he/I knew, telling them about the walk, what it was supporting, how much time he was giving up to make it a success, and then subtly inviting folk to sponsor him. The money just rolled in!
There are lots of charity raffles and donations of prizes are always welcome.
Charity auctions are becoming more popular - maybe you can help by donating a much-treasured but no longer wanted item.
Or, if it is an auction of promises, how about promising to make a cake (these always go for silly prices) or do a few hours gardening, cook a meal for a small group.
So often people will say I only had an admin/secretarial job so there is nothing really I can offer. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Just think about what was involved in your job.
You probably had to be organized, professional, maybe work on your own or as part of a team.
You might have been chairing or supporting meetings (setting them up, doing agendas and minutes, preparing papers).
You will understand the value of maintaining good filing systems; working to set procedures.
All of this gives you an incredibly useful grounding that can be of immense use to charities or groups and societies.
There are so many groups out there – women’s institutes, mothers unions, Probus, Rotary, Inner Wheel etc where you find the Chair, Secretary or Treasurer have been doing the job for years because no one else will take it on.
A lot of people like to be members but don’t feel they have the skills or experience to take on a specific role.
Newcomers prepared to take on roles can always be assured of a warm welcome.
Volunteering in retirement tips
- Don’t take on too much too soon.
- Think hard about what areas interest you most.
- Always remember, you can walk away if something doesn’t suit.
- Be prepared to step back from volunteering if life suddenly gets in the way. Don’t feel guilty about needing to focus on other, maybe family, issues. You can always come back.
- Volunteering should be a two-way process. You are giving up your time and skills. There should be some element of personal satisfaction for you – think about what that would be.
- If you fancy volunteering and are not sure what opportunities there might be or what skills you have to offer, check whether there is a Volunteer Bureau near you. They have quite a formal application process to ensure there is a good match between what is needed and what you may be able to offer.
- Lastly, just keep your eyes and ears open, and have an open mind about any opportunities that might come your way. Just to illustrate the point:
- Twelve or so years ago, I was going on holiday to the Falklands. I was asked to give a talk to a group on my return. Two problems – I didn’t have a camera and didn’t give talks! I was persuaded to get a camera and my first talk was booked. I gave my fee to charity. More trips and more talks followed. In normal ‘pre-Covid’ times I have a repertoire of about 25 different talks and would probably give between 40 – 50 talks a year to lots of different groups. The fees are still all given to charity.
- In 2021 someone who heard one of my talks, and is himself a Mirthy speaker, put my name forward to Mirthy. The result is two talks so far (one done and one booked) and several completed articles, with more in the pipeline. Again all proceeds to charity. This is a real win-win. I am getting a real buzz from what I’m doing, my chosen charities are benefitting, and Mirthy seem very happy to have me on board!
Author: Sue Ablett
Sue has had a varied career from Russian linguist for the Government, to University research (pulling in a PhD ‘for fun’), and for the last 20 years of her working life was Executive Director of a national children’s cancer charity. She is a keen traveller (with a big catalogue of travel talks), runner, cyclist and gardener. Sue regards life as one big adventure and loves every minute of it!
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