The Best Way for Retirees to Find Meaningful Volunteer Work
Nov. 10, 2017 2:00 p.m. ET

I would like to spend more time volunteering when I retire, but I know that finding meaningful work isn’t always easy. Any suggestions how to go about this? To start, and as counterintuitive as this might sound, put yourself first. Yes, volunteering invariably begins with the notion of sacrifice. But a big incentive for many people—
and what keeps them coming back—is what they get from the work, whether it’s a chance to go behind the scenes at the local theater, or friendships with fellow volunteers, or pats on the back. Put another way, seek out work where you might benefit. Volunteers at first “tend to focus very heavily on the idealism of giving back,” says Marc Freedman, CEO of, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes encore careers. But there are also “more immediate aspects that appeal to them: being part of a group or a team, giving themselves a reason to get up in the morning, or a place to go, or a schedule to live by.” Mr. Freedman adds: “The relationships and a sense of purpose are just as important as some of the more lofty ideals in getting a satisfying experience.” Learning opportunities are a good example of this. Many people donate their time to museums, historical sites, zoos, botanical gardens and the like. The work, of course, is frequently its own reward. But these same volunteers, in many cases, also enjoy perks: lectures by curators, an early
look at new exhibits, invitations to functions. Again, when sizing up nonprofit opportunities, there’s nothing wrong with considering how you might, well, profit.
Along these same lines, look for a place or organization that’s “volunteer-centric.”
All nonprofit groups and social-service agencies are structured differently. A library may have a small number of volunteers to assist visitors and shelve books. But it isn’t set up to offer frequent orientation, training, field trips and seminars solely for its volunteers. In contrast, groups organized to train and put volunteers to work tend to offer more—more educational opportunities, more chances to mingle with fellow recruits, more social hours and more recognition—all of which may grow in importance when volunteer work replaces a career. One retiree told us about the formal recognition she received through the Court Appointed Special Advocate program, known in some communities as the guardian ad litem program, in which volunteers speak up for abused and neglected children in the courts. After 40 hours of training, she and her colleagues went to a local court, where they were sworn in by a judge.
“The judge thanks you in court, and you feel like you’re a professional,” she says. “That’s different from some other volunteer places.” Volunteers: By the Numbers
Mr. Ruffenach is a former reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal. His column examines financial issues for those thinking about, planning and living their retirement. Send questions and comments to