There are myriad ways one can choose to spend their retirement, from travelling the world and taking up new hobbies, to spending more time with family and exploring fresh opportunities. However, something else that has proved to be tempting for many at retirement age is volunteering.
There are so many worthwhile causes out there, charities and initiatives that rely on kind-hearted individuals who are looking to offer their free time to help out. Retirees could be raising money for a cause that matters most to them, helping out at local institutions in their community, or even jetting off abroad to assist other countries. The options are truly endless and there is no question that volunteering during one’s golden years would be a worthwhile and rewarding way to spend retirement. Better still, there is an opportunity to suit every individual, even those who require the use of stairlifts at home.
So, how does one go about it? Well, this in-depth guide will run through everything that retirees need to know about volunteering, where to look, reasons for doing so, and top tips for getting the most out of the experience. There’s even a quiz at the end to help determine which sector to choose! Read on to discover more about the joyful world of volunteering.
There is no question that volunteering can be a tremendously rewarding way to spend one’s time, but why exactly should those in retirement look to donate their free time? Let’s have a look at some of the top reasons that make volunteering such an attractive proposition.
Volunteering can be a great opportunity for learning new skills, but it is also an opportunity for those in retirement to use their existing skills to make a difference in the world. Volunteering Matters – a charity that facilitates volunteer-led projects across the country has said that this is one of many reasons volunteering is a wonderful way to spend retirement. They use the example of a former schoolteacher called Diana who found an opportunity to use her research and teaching skills again with Volunteering Matters’ Learning for Life Together project. Diana said that she enjoyed bringing her own skills and knowledge to a worthwhile project and loved “the sense of helping people, of getting out and about. I have no close family in the area and volunteering is a way of connecting with other people.”
Stephanie Dotto, Content and SEO Lead at CharityJob, spoke about the history of volunteering: “People have been volunteering for centuries. From medieval hospitals to wartime efforts, there’s never been a shortage of opportunities to give back to your community and the wider world. In fact, there’s something innately human about the desire to come together and make a difference. And these days, it’s easier than ever to get involved and help develop thriving communities both at home and abroad.
She explained why volunteering in retirement can be so important: “As a volunteer, you’re fostering change on an international scale. You fill in vital gaps, providing an extra pair of hands and the necessary skills to make a difference. Volunteering in retirement means you’re bringing a lengthy work history and skill set to the table. A skillset that many small or medium-sized charities desperately need.”
Many of our charities and local institutions depend on volunteers so it’s vital that kind-hearted people donate some of their free time to help out. Charlie Gillies, the volunteering policy officer for the NCVO (The National Council for Voluntary Organisations), which champions the voluntary sector, spoke about how important volunteers are: “Volunteers make a difference in a whole range of settings and organisations across the charity sector, ranging from small volunteer-led community groups to larger national and international charities. They play an integral role in ensuring organisations can reach more of their beneficiaries and help them to fulfil their missions and objectives.”
Every person out there is different and unique in their own way, all with their own interests and things that they care about. Volunteering is such an exciting idea to many because it allows the individual to give back to a cause that really means something to them. With so many different sectors out there to get involved with, it’s easy for a person to volunteer time for something that they are passionate about. No matter if it is looking after endangered or abused animals, teaching troubled children, or helping the environment, there is an opportunity out there, near or far, that will be appealing.
Many people have a great passion for their local community, to that place where they have grown up or have spent many years being a part of. This leads to volunteers looking to give their time to helping that local village, town, or city that means so much to them. There is no question that volunteering can be a great way to make a truly positive impact in the community and there is even research to back this up! Experts have found that in communities with high volunteering rates (regardless of wealth and class) there are better health levels, less crime, higher life satisfaction, and even better GCSE results.
Another wonderful associated benefit of volunteering in retirement is the ability to make new friends and have a great time. In the process of volunteering for a worthwhile cause, people often find that their social lives greatly benefit and they look forward immensely to the time they spend helping out. A study from Oxfam has shown this directly with Elena Laguna, head of volunteering at Oxfam, saying:
“Volunteering is a two-way opportunity, a chance for organisations to work with skilled and motivated volunteers and the opportunity for them to meet new people and do something different in their day-to-day lives once they are retired. In 2016 Oxfam carried out a survey which showed that volunteering leads to an enhanced social life and less loneliness. The fall in loneliness was most significant among those aged over 55, whose time spent feeling isolated went from three and a half hours to just half an hour.”
Volunteering isn’t just good for the local area or something fun to do, it has also been proven to have benefits for a person’s mental health. Scientists and psychologists have found consistent evidence that volunteering improves mental wellbeing for people of all ages. A 2016 study has even found that the older the volunteer, the greater the positive effect on their mental health – making this even more attractive for those in retirement. Of course, volunteering shouldn’t be a selfish endeavour, but this is just one of many associated benefits that can come along with doing so.
Volunteering doesn’t have to be a local or even national endeavour. Volunteering can be a great way to get out and about and see more of the world. Many people look forward to being able to travel more during retirement, seeing some of the planet’s most beautiful and distant locations. Why not combine this pursuit with the act of volunteering as so many others have done? From teaching English abroad to working on animal conservation projects in the wild, there is a large variety of opportunities to see the world while you help improve it.
For those attracted to the idea of volunteering abroad, one such company that can make this happen (including for over 50s) is GVI, which has volunteering opportunities all over the world. Speaking about the joys of volunteering, Ali Jones, an over 50s ambassador for GVI, says:
“Volunteering is really special. Especially if you volunteer with a community development project, like the one in Dawasamu, Fiji. It's a totally unique experience living and working in the community, one where you can experience and understand a different culture and way of life. You see things from another perspective and have deeper connections with people and nature. Travel on its own is great but with volunteering, you have a completely different experience. Being in your 50s has loads of advantages when volunteering or travelling too (especially if you're by yourself). Don't think about the 'what if's' and just go for it!”
Image credit: GVI
Liz Atwood, a retiree who has volunteered through GVI, has spoken about what an incredible travel experience it was for her: “I have volunteered abroad in Laos and Cambodia which has been very worthwhile as well as an amazing cultural experience and holiday. When volunteering, I really loved the special connection with local people and being invited to take part in special events.
“For example, I have joined in a procession with monks and a meal in the Pagoda to celebrate Buddha’s birthday, attended a Khmer wedding wearing the traditional dress, and was invited to relax and eat with locals in a rural Khmer village where we have been volunteering. It was a real privilege to experience the true country and way of life that would never happen as a tourist.
“Apart from travelling, volunteering has given me a clearer head for my future and has helped me adjust to retirement. Overall, volunteering has reminded me not to take things for granted and has given my life perspective. I would encourage others of all ages to book onto a volunteer project. It’s never too late to live your dream!”
Image credit: GVI
Pod Volunteer offers life-changing volunteer experiences abroad in the fields of animal rescue, conservation, childcare and also appreciates the value of those in retirement. They explain that their projects benefit hugely from having experienced and mature volunteers and that you are never too old to do so:
“Volunteering abroad during your retirement is an amazing way to explore new places, learn new skills and experience new cultures. Not only does being retired mean that you have the time to travel, but the wealth of experience and skills you have gained makes you an asset to the volunteering teams.
“There's a misunderstanding that volunteering overseas is just for the youth. Volunteering overseas is open to anyone, of any age and we believe that a diverse group of volunteers adds to your overall experience – so why should the young ones have all the fun!”
They also spoke about why they believe volunteering abroad is such a great way to travel: “There is great value in travel, and through volunteering, working alongside locals and learning about the culture, you gain a deeper experience and are truly able to get involved and help to make a difference. Being able to fully immerse yourself and give something back at the same time makes for a truly memorable and meaningful travel experience.”
Image credit: Mapping Megan
Meg Jerrard from the travel blog Mapping Megan has volunteered abroad herself and believes that volunteering is a great way to experience a culture on a much deeper level than you ever would as a tourist: “As an international volunteer you’ll get to discover a city’s secrets, learn its culture, live with local people, learn how to cook dishes passed down through generations, and head well and truly off the tourist trail. Though one serious perk is that if you find free or low-cost placements, it can save you a lot of money on the road, keeping you travelling for longer.”
Flora from the travel blog Flora the Explorer, has also spent time volunteering abroad and spoke about what she loves must about it: “Volunteering allows me to spend time with local people and see locations from their perspective, which always provides me with a unique experience I'd never manage if I was travelling normally!” Flora also offered some top tips for those looking to follow in her footsteps: “I always recommend finding a volunteer project once you're on the ground in-country - although there are plenty of programs and projects advertised online. Secondly, I'd suggest asking the project organisers a lot of questions about what they're hoping to gain from your role with them - and if possible, try to speak to past volunteers to hear how they've found it.”
Why should you volunteer in retirement?
So, how does one get involved in volunteering during retirement? Well, the good news is that there are many ways to do so depending on the sector or interests of the person in question.
There are numerous organisations that exist to help people get involved, one of which being Volunteering Matters – a leading UK volunteering charity which engages more than 30,000 volunteers each year (half of which are over 50) across scores of amazing programmes. On their website, people can even search for perfect volunteering opportunities in their local area. From their own data, the Chief Executive, Oonagh Aitken, has said that they know “volunteering greatly enhances well-being by engendering a sense of purpose.” Their volunteers have reported improvement in health and have made more social contacts in their community.
Many of our cities have organisations dedicated to volunteers, such as Volunteer Glasgow, which provides services and information on volunteering in the city as well as opportunities that are available. Here you can register your interest, communicate with organisations, and opt to receive regular updates on new volunteering opportunities. Speaking about what their volunteers can gain from the experience, Volunteer Glasgow says: “Volunteering helps to deliver outcomes across virtually every aspect of life in the city. Volunteers themselves also benefit through increased health, happiness and employability. By volunteering, we also exercise our power to influence the world around us.”
Oxfam is a charity that seeks volunteers to help them with their work and their head of volunteering, Elena Laguna, has offered a few words on how important this is: “Volunteers are the heartbeat of our movement to end poverty around the world. Without them, Oxfam wouldn’t be able to carry out its life-saving work. Our shops raise vital money and sparing a small amount of your time makes such a difference to people’s lives.”
The Children’s Society is another charity that relies on volunteers, people like Phil, who at 92 has been volunteering for over 60 years. Finn Grant, Director of Volunteering at The Children’s Society said: “In the past year nearly 10,000 volunteers contributed an incredible 478,000 hours. Without this support, The Children’s Society would not be able to provide a wide range of services to help vulnerable children and young people.
“We offer so many different ways people can volunteer and welcome all who want to help. You could support a campaign by writing to your local MP, organise an event on our behalf to raise awareness of our work, or take part in a challenge event. We also have 106 shops around the country that are always in need of volunteers. Finally, if you wanted to work more directly with young people, there are opportunities to volunteer in our services. Every action can make a difference to the lives of young people that really need it.”
There are also companies where those looking to volunteer in other countries can find existing opportunities, including the likes of GVI – which has over 50s opportunities in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, and Australasia – and Pod Volunteer, who has dedicated placements for those who are looking to volunteer in global destinations during retirement. Another fantastic example is WorkingAbroad, who we hear from later in the article regarding volunteering abroad for old people.
Volunteering has never been easier, so think about what area or sector that is appealing, do some research, use the resources provided above and see what opportunities are available! Volunteering Matters suggests: "Go online! There are many free websites that can be effective in finding local volunteering opportunities: Do-it.org, Gumtree, CharityJob, Vinspired, Indeed.co.uk, Freeads.co.uk, and Jobsite.co.uk.”
Four step process to volunteering
Having the intention to volunteer is the first big step but, for those who are unfamiliar with it, it can be a hard thing to get into. There are often hundreds, if not thousands, of opportunities and it can be hard to know which to go for.
After deciding to explore volunteering opportunities and donate time, it’s worth sitting down to examine all of the opportunities and find the one that makes the most sense for you.
For a first-time volunteer, it’s a good practice to consider what skills you can bring to volunteering. So, whether well-versed in computer work, an expert gardener or a passionate painter, you can align your current skills with a role.
NCVO spoke to us about how important this is: “Think about where your skills, experience and knowledge could have the biggest impact. For example, are you a budding Mary Berry or MasterChef? Use your baking skills to throw a tea party for older people or join others cooking surplus food for a community meal.”
Itay Asher is the co-founder of New Meaning - Travel with a Purpose, an organisation that promotes volunteering opportunities around the world to the baby boomer generation. Italy shared his advice for those looking for volunteering opportunities: “Our advice is to follow your heart when picking a volunteering activity, either in your home country or somewhere exotic abroad- some people like volunteering in our humanitarian projects, some prefer wildlife, and some go for the ecology and biodiversity projects.”
“From our experience, someone who likes to teach should teach, those who like to dive should save coral reefs, and those who like big cats should help them survive.”
As well as pursuing a passion project, volunteering can also allow people to achieve personal goals. Whether it is small goals like helping your community, becoming more social or learning a new skill, or it’s a larger goal like gaining a qualification or travelling to a new country, it’s possible to achieve a lot through volunteering. If there is something you want to do, then you can always try and find a volunteering opportunity that will help you get there.
Julia’s House is a children’s charity based in Dorset and Wiltshire. The team there told us about the importance of their volunteers: “We couldn’t do what we do without our amazing volunteers, they’re wonderful! We currently have 500 volunteers working with Julia’s House and their passion, energy and enthusiasm is at the heart of what they do.”
The team provide their top tip for those considering volunteering: “The biggest tip is to be willing to try new things. Sometimes people want to volunteer to use the skills they have gained during their working life or to follow a particular interest or hobby, but actually, it can be exciting to try something completely new. So, look at volunteering opportunities that can help you learn skills that you’ve never had to use before, enable you to meet different people and provide you with new and interesting experiences. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Just a few hours can make a huge difference to you and the charity your helping.”
One of the most important things about volunteering is that you are having fun. Yes, sometimes it may be hard work or may be overwhelming, but it should be something you enjoy. A good volunteer is a happy volunteer, and if someone goes into it with their head in the wrong place, they may not end up making the positive change they would have wished.
Byron James, the manager of The Furniture Revival from Groundwork discussed the impact of volunteers on them: “On a daily basis, volunteers bring a wealth of experience and frequently help us to mentor other volunteers into skilled, confident workers.”
“With vast work and life experience, they bring professional knowledge and expertise to our social enterprise. They provoke thought and different ways of operating. With their experience, they are able to provide advice and support to enable us to operate more efficiently and effectively and to focus on our future development.”
Byron then discussed the personal benefits of volunteering, and how it can be a door to a new journey: “Retired volunteers benefit from being with other retired volunteers, and often find comfort in working and socialising with people in a similar position. Working with us allows them to keep their minds focused, stay active, whilst feeling valued and appreciated. They also benefit from the satisfaction of serving their communities and adding great value to it.”
He continued: “People do not look back regretting the things they did do but what they didn’t. Don’t underestimate the expertise, experience and the value that you will add to an organisation. The value that is added cannot be measured. Without you, we would not be able to operate and reach our communities in the same way!”
After starting a volunteering opportunity, if it isn’t what was advertised or what was expected, talk to the coordinator or manager and discuss any concerns. It’s better to get these out in the open as it won’t only benefit you but can also benefit the charity, and benefit people volunteering here in the future.
Volunteering does not have to be done alone! If entering something new alone is too overwhelming, enlist the help of friends and family to take the first steps. You can sign multiple people up and use it not only as a new experience but something to do together.
Alternatively, asking others for assistance just getting a foot in the door can also be beneficial. Many people may be aware of a great charity in need of another set of hands, or something happening in the local community that needs fixing and can recommend you to assist.
NVCO suggests that you “do your research – online and in person. Go to your local volunteer centre, which you can find via NCVO. Pop into charities in your local area that interest you and have a chat about their volunteering opportunities. Chat to your family and friends about their volunteering experiences to get inspiration for what you might like to do.”
Vicky is part of the team at WorkingAbroad which pairs volunteers with opportunities around the world. She explained why volunteering makes such a difference globally: “We recently asked our partner organisations abroad how volunteers make a difference to them. They all came with the same response, that volunteers are essential to their work and have a direct positive impact on them and what they are trying to achieve. Whether volunteering in one's own community or when abroad, volunteers are actively contributing to work that has a positive impact on the world around them.”
Vicky then explained how WorkingAbroad can help retired volunteers: “On WorkingAbroad, you can search from a volunteer opportunity either by country or type of work - opportunities are available for people up to 80 years old on many of our projects. We offer personalised advice to anyone interested in volunteering for the first time, so we are available to chat and can offer recommendations based on their background and personal interests. We can recommend those projects that are more suited to the mature/retired volunteer sector, taking into account physical demands, travel and also what is expected of them. We have placed many happy retirees on our projects all across the world.”
Simon Rice, Volunteer Co-ordinator at Catching Lives also explained how volunteers help the charity: “Volunteers provide an essential structure of support, from feeding the homeless to supporting them back into accommodation and beyond, and without them, we simply would not be able to exist.”
Simon agreed that research is important: “A large section of our volunteer base is retired; these retirees provide a level of experience and regularity that forms the backbone of everything that we do at the charity. Therefore, my advice would be; don't be nervous about reaching out and asking about volunteering!
“Don't be afraid to ask questions and visit the organisation you are interested in volunteering with; there is nothing more important you can give than your time, so making sure where you choose to volunteer is the right environment for you is important.
Stephanie from CharityJob mirrored this advice: “Do your homework. Just because a charity is fighting for the same change you are, doesn’t mean they’re doing it a sustainable way. Believe us, charities are craving volunteers like you because they know you have practical skills that can help support and shape their mission. You have a wealth of experience to bring to the table, and you don’t want all that insight and expertise to go to waste.
“Once you’ve found the right charity, you can tap into all that savvy and know-how you’ve fostered during your working years and make a truly positive impact on the lives of others.”
Volunteering is a fantastic way to spend spare time, but it should not take up all of your time. NCVO spoke about the importance of managing your commitment: “Think about what time commitment you are able to make. Try to be realistic about how much time you have available. Can you make a regular weekly commitment, or would you prefer something less frequent but ongoing?”
Karen, who is a volunteer Grandmentor with Volunteer Matters, has similar advice for those looking to volunteer in retirement. Karen says that it’s about making sure she can offer something that she can truly commit to, considering important factors like family commitments. She said having an open mind and speaking to the Volunteer Matters team early on “to make sure I could commit properly to the right young person” was a big help.
After retirement, it might feel unusual to contact former employers for referrals. If this is something you don’t want to do, you can also look for referrals from the community around you. The team at Volunteering Matters say to: “Have a think about any local contacts you already have – this is often the best way to find the appropriate volunteering opportunity.” Not only can they offer you written referrals, but they can also offer word-of-mouth referrals if they know the charity or initiative you are looking to volunteer with.
Many charities are able to put you in touch with like-minded volunteers if you’d like some insider information before starting. Bee, Lead Volunteer Coordinator at Indigo Volunteers explained how they can help: “We can also connect you with retirees that have volunteered with us if you would like to hear about their experience. We know email is not for everyone, so we are also happy to arrange a phone chat. We can also offer advice and guidance on volunteering and answer any questions (or misconceptions!).”
Top tips for volunteering in retirement
For those who want to volunteer but aren’t sure which area or role would align with their interests and their skills, this quick quiz can provide some insight into a sector suited to you.
Volunteering is a fantastic thing that everyone should get involved in during their lifetime, if possible. For all people, young and old, there is help and love to give, it’s just about finding the best way to give it. Whether you are incredibly active or you suffer from low mobility and need aids like straight stairlifts, there are many things you can do to help.
Hopefully, this article has helped guide you through the various sectors of volunteering, shed some light on how beneficial it can be, and highlighted some of the best things to think about before getting into it.