The best volunteer opportunities for retirees

The desire to make a positive impact on the world is an ambition that nearly all human beings share. Throughout history, that desire to give back, do good, and leave a lasting legacy has driven many of our most important achievements, from master works of literature, music, and art to groundbreaking advancements in medicine, engineering, and technology.

While we can’t all become household names like Bill Gates, Yo Yo Ma, or Oprah, we all have the power to contribute our skills, talents, and time to causes that matter to us. And while those contributions might not drastically change the world as we know it, they can dramatically improve the lives of the individuals on the other side of our efforts.

During your time in the workforce, when free time was harder to come by, your philanthropic efforts might have been limited to making donations or spending the occasional Saturday afternoon at a charity event. Now that you’re retired, you finally have the opportunity to make giving back a part of your regular routine.  

Whether you’re looking for a full-time gig at a nonprofit or only have a few hours to spare each week, there are countless ways to make a difference. We’ve compiled a few ideas to get you started.

Feed the hungry.

One of the greatest gifts we can give our fellow man is a wholesome, nutritious meal, especially if it is prepared with love and shared with a smile. Regardless of the specific hardships a person may be facing, it’s always harder to fight life’s battles on an empty stomach. If you want to volunteer your time and resources to a local soup kitchen or food bank, you can probably find multiple options in your area via churches, community centers, and the local chapter of the Salvation Army.

If you’re looking for a more intimate experience, consider becoming a driver for Meals on Wheels, which would afford you the opportunity to forge real friendships as you provide essential sustenance to the homebound seniors you serve. Another grassroots organization worth looking into is Hashtag Lunchbag. This nationwide movement provides tools and resources that allow volunteers across the country to host their own lunch-making and distributing events.  

Provide shelter.

Shelter is at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, yet homelessness continues to be a problem that impacts nearly every major city in the United States. In fact, in 2017, our nation’s homeless population increased for the first time since 2010.

When it comes to doing your part to end this epidemic, there are multiple angles from which to attack the problem. Volunteering with an organization like Habitat for Humanity, for example, would allow you to have a hand in building the actual structures that can provide affordable housing to those in need. If you have physical limitations that would prevent you from being involved in the construction process, donating your time or funds to an established homeless or women’s shelter in your community are also great ways to support this cause.

Offer your companionship.

If you’re looking to forge more intimate bonds with the people you help, becoming a foster grandparent or senior companion can be an incredibly rewarding experience. As a foster grandparent, you will have the opportunity to help children and teenagers in your community as a teacher, friend, and role model. Many of the young people you will serve in this role have special needs or come from tumultuous backgrounds, and you will have the opportunity to bring a sense of stability to their lives and empower them with the tools and guidance they need to make their way toward a brighter future.

As a senior companion, you can enable older individuals to safely maintain independent lifestyles. By helping them with tasks that they are no longer able to perform on their own, such as cleaning, grocery shopping, or landscaping, you will enable your senior companion to stay in their own home when they may have otherwise been forced to hire an live-in nurse or move into an assisted living facility.

To learn more about each of these opportunities, as well as more volunteering programs designed specifically with seniors in mind, visit the Senior Corps website.

Make your local hospital a happier place.

The hospital can be a pretty scary place, especially for those who are there as patients. For people who don’t enjoy regular visits from friends or family members, even a relatively short stay in the hospital can be an incredibly lonely, alienating experience. Fortunately, volunteers have the power to transform those negative experiences by bringing compassion, fun, and positivity into an otherwise sterile environment. Most hospitals offer a variety of opportunities, from candy striping to manning an information kiosk or even knitting! Of course, you should expect to undergo an application and health screening process if you decide to pursue this route. Depending on the hospital you choose to work with, you may be expected to attend an orientation session or training program before officially starting your volunteer assignment.

Make some new furry friends.

If you’re an animal lover, volunteering at a local animal shelter can be an especially fulfilling way to make an impact in your community. While the time commitments and tasks expected of volunteers will vary from shelter to shelter, it is safe to assume that you’ll be trained in any procedures they might ask you to complete. Some shelters will require you to go through an application or training process, and while some shelters may allow volunteers to walk in at their convenience, others adhere to a set schedule and will assign you hours on a week-to-week basis. To get a better idea of what to expect, schedule a call to consult with each of the shelters in your area before taking any next steps. You might find that one is a better fit than the others based on your skills or availability.

Embrace your love for mother nature.

If you’re the type of person who is happiest when soaking up the sunshine and natural beauty of our planet, then you’d be an excellent candidate for the U.S. National Park Service’s VIP (Volunteers-in-Parks) program. Their database allows you to find the most up-to-date and relevant roles for your interests, age, location, and skill or fitness level. While some positions require special training, knowledge or skills, many jobs require nothing beyond your desire to volunteer.

Become a cultural conservationist.

If you’ve got a passion for art or history, and you think you’d enjoy sharing your knowledge with others, you’d probably enjoy volunteering as a docent or tour guide at a local museum. This role will likely require you to attend a training program of some kind as you will be trusted as a teacher on each tour you host. While hosting your tours will be your primary responsibility as a docent, you may also be asked to undertake other tasks, such as answering phones or manning an information desk. Additionally, some museums will expect a regular commitment of your time for up to a year.

Keep democracy alive.

Regardless of your political leanings, as a U.S. citizen, you have a right for your voice to be heard via our democratic process. While you may not be interested in running for local office, there are a variety of ways you can make an impact on a local, state, or national level. Regardless of the time you are willing to commit or the extent to which you would like to get involved, The Center for Civic Education has some ideas that can help you get started. Here are just a few that we think are most helpful:

Do your research.

Stay informed, keep up with current events, and share your learnings with others but make sure that your sources are credible. You don’t want to have a hand in propagating false information or “fake news,” nor do you want your own vote to be swayed by these false narratives.

Cast your vote.

Vote in all elections, not just the big ones. It should go without saying that your vote is the most direct way to make an impact on the laws of our nation, but far too many people justify staying home on election days by assuming their vote doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. If everyone adopted that mindset, our democracy itself would be useless!

Get involved.

Sign petitions, write letters to your representatives, and engage in political discussions, especially when regarding the topics or issues that you are most passionate about.
Volunteer your time & voice by canvassing for a candidate you believe in, participating in a phone banking event, or helping out at your local polling place on election day.

Be at the right place at the right time.

If you’re looking to make a significant impact on someone’s life when they are most in need of help, you’ll need to pay attention to what’s happening in your community in real time. Volunteers and donations are always needed in the wake of natural disasters, such as wildfires, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Similarly, certain times of the year can provide unique opportunities for getting involved. The holiday season, for example, is ripe with opportunities to make a difference, whether you decide to organize a Thanksgiving canned food drive in your neighborhood, cook and serve holiday dinners at your local church, or collect toys to donate for less fortunate children in your community. Keep an eye on the local section of your newspaper, as well as on any community bulletin boards, to keep yourself in the loop as new needs arise in your area.   

Work with a nonprofit organization you believe in.

We are living in the golden age of the nonprofit. If you can think of a problem that is facing our planet or its people, it is more than likely that there is an organization out there dedicated to solving it. Some of these organizations are dedicated to furthering research into cures for particular diseases or ailments, some are focused on advancing social causes, and others have religious or educational goals they are working towards. The extent to which you can get involved will depend on the nonprofit you decide to pursue a relationship with. If you have relevant skills or knowledge, they may have a hands-on volunteer role for you in their offices. If the organization is more research-oriented, leading a fundraiser in your community or educating others in your community about the goals and approach of the organization might be a more valuable contribution. Not sure which nonprofit would be a good fit for you? Check out VolunteerMatch, a website dedicated to connecting nonprofits with volunteers. Their handy search tool allows you to filter your search by location, category, or interest to find an organization you’d be proud to serve.

Create your own opportunity.

If you recognize a need that isn’t being addressed or a problem still in need of solving in your community or in the world at large, you might be just the person for the job. Depending on the scope of your mission, getting your project off the ground might seem daunting or even impossible. Fortunately, there are platforms out there, like Create the Good, that can help by providing tools and how-to guides to get you started down the right path. As long as you have a good idea and good intentions, any efforts you make are sure to have a positive impact.

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Read our quick-start guide for help, including which questions you should be asking as you approach retirement.

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