If your kids have flown the nest or you’ve quit the five-day working world, you might be thinking about volunteering. That’s smart, because as much as you have to offer, you also have much to gain. Volunteering gets you involved, helps you develop new relationships, and creates a way to share your valuable experience. New research also suggests volunteering can improve your health.
Consider before you commit
But before you say yes to the first opportunity that comes your way, think about these key factors to set yourself for an experience that fits you – and the people you’re helping.
The why. Why do you want to volunteer? To add more to your life? For companionship? To give back? Write your reasons down – you’ll probably have more than one – and stay true to them.
Strengths & passions. Think about what you enjoy and care about, whether it’s accounting or reading, a healthy environment or healthy kids, your local neighborhood or the broader community.
Time. Know how much time you want to give each week, and whether you’re ready for an open-ended commitment or a short-term project. To avoid burnout, be realistic. At the Southern Maine Area on Aging – where volunteers give 4 or fewer hours a week – only 28 of 571 stepped down early last year.
Location. Do you have transportation? How far are you willing to travel? Even if it’s not easy for you to get out, you might still have options. “Some of our Phone Pal volunteers who check in with housebound seniors once a week by phone are housebound themselves,” notes Mary Hadlock, who coordinates 500-600 volunteers a year at SMAAA.
Combine your key ingredients
Now you can begin to pinpoint roles that might work. Here’s how it all came together for one Maine volunteer:
“I knew I wanted to connect three things: literacy, my immediate community, and children,” says Debbi Thomson, 81, of Brooksville. “Each one is meaningful to me, but combining them is even more powerful.” She found her place in an after-school reading program at her local library. Four years later, she’s still a Monday-afternoon regular and has followed the same student from second grade to fifth.
Get the details and start smart
Once you have your eye on an opportunity, there’s just a bit more to do to make sure the fit is right.
Ask questions. Make sure you understand the group’s mission. Talk to current and past volunteers. Talk to the person who will be your primary contact. Be clear about your responsibilities. Ask about training to help you get up to speed.
“You might decide that after time, you want to progress or try something different, so ask if the role has room for growth or change,” notes Hadlock.
Take a test run. Shadowing a current volunteer or starting on a trial basis gives you a chance to make sure the role is right without the risk of leaving someone in need in the lurch if it doesn’t work out.
“Meals on Wheels has a list of seniors waiting for services, so it’s essential that we keep our volunteer roster full,” says Hadlock.
Finding your match
With your homework done, you’re ready to explore opportunities and get to the good part – giving back.