Thinking about retirement often means thinking about volunteering. With more available time, it’s a way to give back. It’s a chance to identify our interests, harness our skills and put them to good use for the benefit of others. All on our own schedule, without having to punch a time clock. Simple and easy, right?

Not always, as I’ve learned more than once.

I’m someone who believes in volunteering. It gives me purpose and provides help to organizations and individuals who can use it. I’ve served in a variety of different roles—including a literacy tutor for ESL adult learners, an organizer for a food pantry, an assistant to horticulturists at a botanical garden and as a board member more than once—and had both good and awful experiences.

And I’ve learned a number of lessons as a result.

One volunteer experience from hell

I had high hopes for this opportunity. I’d recently moved to a new town and learned that there was an organization whose mission was to advance children’s literacy. Being a strong supporter of literacy initiatives, I thought this might have potential. I met with the volunteer coordinator and learned that they were looking for a photographer to shoot their first annual 5K walk and run fundraiser. Perfect! I could put my photography skills to good use for a good cause.

On the day of the race, I arrived early and scoped out the course and the best places to get my shots. It was a glorious day—perfect weather. I was totally absorbed in my task, and I managed to get a photo of each participant as they crossed the finish line. The next week I showed the prints to the volunteer coordinator and she was thrilled. She decided they would put some on their website right away, use them to create the promo poster for the following year’s event and send each participant their finish-line shot. My photos would be put to good use.

One week later, the coordinator called me with bad news. The executive director had also been taking photos at the event. He decided that his photos would be put on the website, used for the promo poster and sent to participants. He had asked her to relay the message to me that if I wanted to print and give them my finish-line photos, they would “put them in the envelopes along with his.” She told me—in confidence—that my photos were far superior (she was right) but that he had overridden her decision.

I gave them my photos, but I was pissed off and hurt. I can’t think of a better example of a way to turn off a potential volunteer. Clearly this organization had communication problems, a leader with an ego issue and an organizational inability to welcome and appreciate their volunteers.

At first, I vowed not to have anything further to do with them. But there were few other opportunities in this small town, I liked the volunteer coordinator, and the group’s literacy mission spoke to me. I found other roles to take on that had little contact with the executive director. Unfortunately, their inability to appreciate volunteers never changed, so I moved on after two years and found another opportunity with another organization.

One volunteer experience from heaven

My father spent the last eleven days of his life in hospice care. The caring support that the volunteers provided to him and our family was so selfless and profound that I vowed that someday I would become a hospice volunteer.

That day came two years ago. I went through pre-training interviews, an intense and intensive training program and a post-training interview, then began serving dying individuals and their families. Throughout, I’ve experienced constant and tangible support and thanks from this hospice organization.

I know that hospice volunteering is not for everyone. And I’ve learned that bringing it up at a social get-together can quickly silence the conversation. Yes, it forces you to face your ideas, fears and misconceptions about death. That was part of the motivation for me.

Unexpectedly, it has become so much more. I’m a naturally curious person and a great listener. I can sit in silence with someone and be comfortable in the face of tears and grief. I can put myself aside. Listening to another person’s life story and learning about who they’ve loved and who has loved them is an honor and a gift. We laugh, observe the simple joys of life, talk about anything and everything or nothing. The individuals and families are grateful, but I often feel that I’m the one who is getting more.

This volunteer role fills me up like no other has. The role, the organization and their mission harmonize perfectly with my skills and interests.

What I’ve learned about volunteering

There is a wide universe of volunteer opportunities; just about anything exists. With a lot of self-awareness and some persistence, you can find a good match. Here’s some of what I’ve learned that has helped me find worthwhile volunteer roles:

  • Identify your interests first. Then do some research and find organizations whose missions align with yours. Just because an organization does good work doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for you. Do your homework.
  • Honestly assess your strengths (and weaknesses) and know what you bring to the opportunity. It will help you evaluate the volunteer roles they are offering.
  • Know why you are volunteering. It ought to be for a better reason than just filling time.
  • Volunteering somewhere simply because a friend suggests it, or wants you to volunteer with her, will often be a mistake. An organization’s mission may align with her interests and skills but maybe not with yours.
  • Interview the organization. Have a list of questions about what’s important to you and ask them of the volunteer coordinator and/or the executive director. Meet and talk with some of the other volunteers and ask more questions.
  • Understand that it takes time and commitment to find the right volunteer gig. You have to be persistent and patient.
  • Pay attention to how you’re treated. It should be with respect and gratitude.
  • Expect that some volunteer roles you take on will turn out to not be right for you. It might not have been right from the beginning or the situation may change over time.
  • It’s ok to stop volunteering when it isn’t a good fit. Your time is valuable and a gift to others, so give it where it feels right and where it’s wanted and valued.
  • Take it slowly. Resist the urge to simply fill your time in retirement. Adjust to one volunteer role before considering taking on an additional one.

It took time, and a lot of trial-and-error, for me to learn how to assess myself as a potential volunteer and how to evaluate opportunities as a potential good fit. I know my approach is different—I’ve had volunteer coordinators tell me that they feel as if they and their organizations are being interviewed when they meet with me. Well, of course they are! My time and skills are valuable, and I won’t waste them in an inappropriate role or with an organization that doesn’t respect my contribution.

Whether you are already volunteering or considering it for the first time, kudos to you for taking it on. Hopefully, what I’ve learned can help you in your process of finding a fulfilling and rewarding volunteer gig.

 What’s been your experience with volunteering? What lessons has volunteering taught you? Please share in the comments below!