Volunteering – Its Benefits & Pitfalls

This article is written by Sophie Gelski, Retirement Coach and Director of Navigating Retirement. You can read the original article here.

We make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give.

Winston Churchill

According to Barbara B. Haggerty (2016), “Volunteering prolongs your life. It makes you happier and spares you depression. And heart attacks. Helps you to stay sober, and boosts your immune system. It cures burnout. It fires up your dopamine levels, giving you chemical rewards. It lowers stress levels, and reduces chronic pain. It gives you a purpose in life.”

Why Volunteer? What Are The Benefits?

Volunteering can be a very productive outlet for everyone, but especially for baby boomers in the Third Age. For many of us, volunteering can, in part, replace the structure, social engagement, and purpose we lost by retiring from our career or job. Volunteering brings with it a wealth of benefits. It can: broaden our vision, by enabling us to become acquainted with life beyond our own perspective; enhance our understanding and compassion for others; it can be empowering, by providing opportunities for self-development; it can enable us to make new friends; it can also provide opportunities to serve—doing something meaningful for others.

“If all the world stayed home indulging only in personal pursuits, we would be left with a crueller, irresponsible, and morally deficient world” Lawson (1998). When we open our hearts and minds, and venture into the broader community, we develop connections to the world in which we live. Addressing needs in our local community helps us not only to reflect on our own belief system, but also, find a deeper, richer significance in our lives that money, fame or education cannot provide.

The most rewarding thing, is service to others. That’s what volunteering provides. Begin today. We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

What Can I Contribute? I Don’t Have Any Talents?

Volunteering activities vary enormously in their demands. It may provide opportunities to develop new talents by working with experienced professionals. To ensure we are making the right decision, we must assess ourselves. What are our strongest skills? What types of work provides us the most satisfaction? What areas interest us so that a volunteering job will be a good fit?

The best preparation or training is to go ahead, and give it a go. Helping in a soup kitchen, delivering Meals-On-Wheels, visiting the sick and infirm in hospital, or an aged-care facility, requires no special talent.

It just takes heart, and it takes us, as we are.

Where To Volunteer?

Finding a volunteer job is like finding a paid job that matches our skills, talents, and the time we have available. In spirit, it is close to shopping for an elderly or ill neighbour, or giving a friend a lift to the airport.

We need to evaluate our likes, dislikes, abilities and limitations, as well as our motivations.

Volunteer opportunities abound: working in a crisis centre, like Suicide Prevention or Lifeline; helping the homeless; the elderly; helping individuals directly by teaching, in an educational programme [e.g. Smith Family Literacy Program], encouraging young writers from diverse backgrounds at The Sydney Story Factory, or teaching English to migrants; delivering Meals-On-wheels, or working with children in out-of-home care by becoming a Pyjama Angel; volunteering in parks, like Centennial Parklands, museums of all kinds and/or environmental groups like Greenpeace or Earth Watch.

Volunteer choices are virtually limitless.

Some useful websites:

I’ve Volunteered Before But I Often Lose Interest. How Can I Stay Engaged?

Enthusiasm is a by-product of volunteering. Like any other job, it may require mundane procedures and fixed rules designed to be followed by the organisation for whom we are volunteering. Sometimes, following these procedures is disheartening, and can be the cause for us to drop out.

To maintain our commitment, we need to select the organisation with care, to ensure there is a good match between our interests, skills and talents, and the responsibilities required.

Continued enjoyment of what we are doing, also involves having the right mindset. Sometimes, this entails not taking ourselves too seriously. As well as maintaining a sense of humour.

When considering whether to continue, and thinking to ourselves, “I can’t do this anymore. It’s just too hard for me,” we need to reflect on the words of a child in out- of -home care, “I’ve been in foster care since I was born. I used to hate reading and when I was asked to read in class everyone laughed at me. But, now, I do it almost every day, and read with confidence, thanks to my Pyjama Angel.”

Perhaps, all we need is to change our view of what really matters, and heed the words of those in need. Their words, and lives should be enough encouragement to inspire us anew.

How Can I Stop Volunteering?

It isn’t easy to say “no” to an organisation, a cause, or situation we feel passionately about supporting, or one that relies on our services. However, sometimes, we need to be realistic. Sometimes, we need to say ‘No.’ We all have our limits regarding what we feel we can successfully contribute as a volunteer. As our life’s priorities, schedules, and interests shift, and circumstances change, we may no longer have the desire, ability, or time to continue volunteering.

However, instead of just dropping out with no explanation, inform your organisation and explain your changed circumstances.

Volunteering Helps Us Feel Needed

Being needed is of fundamental importance to human beings. Sociologist Morris Rosenberg coined the term “mattering”—the need to feel noticed, appreciated and depended upon. It is a universal and often overlooked motive that influences our thinking and behaviour. It is important for us all to believe that we count in other’s lives, and that we make a difference to them. Our materialistic life styles often prevent many of us from establishing true intimacy and connection. Volunteering with people who need us, gives us enormous rewards.

Individuals who are house-bound and desperate for some attention, conversation or a meal delivered; hospitals are full of people who are unwell, lonely as they lie in cold hospital surroundings; children in out-of-home care who are desperate to catch up to their peers in literacy, as well as need models who they can emulate and count on. Volunteering can make a profound difference in someone’s life – as well as our own.

All of us need to be needed. All of us need to matter. Volunteering is your quickest way to fulfil this need.

Pitfalls of Volunteering

Volunteering may not always be as easy as it seems. Sometimes, it is hard to locate exactly the right fit—an activity that both fits well with our skills, interest, schedule and gives personal satisfaction. It may not be easy as it appears also, because there are many, many volunteers trying to find something meaningful to do, too.

I tried to volunteer at various organisations on 4 successive occasions. The first time, was for the Literacy Centre with the Smith Family. I found there were no vacancies anywhere in NSW. The second round, was when I contacted the Exodus Foundation. I was told that their Reading Program had been axed, due to cuts by the State Government. I distinctly remember reading in the Sydney Morning Herald a couple of weeks later, that Taronga Park Zoo had a 2-year waiting list! The third time, was after hearing about an opportunity at the University of Sydney, to mentor Indigenous students. I was very excited about this prospect and as soon as I arrived home, I eagerly opened my laptop to register. But the website had crashed, due to the high demand for access. I thought I’d give volunteering one more go, so I contacted Primary Ethics to register my interest in their program. I was eagerly looking forward not only to the prospect of returning to the classroom, but also, having the opportunity to be involved in such a worthwhile initiative. However, I was told they didn’t require my services, as they had an over-supply of applicants.

Clearly, volunteering requires time, patience, and resilience to keep searching, until we find the place where we really will feel useful, and our services will be appreciated. Persistence is essential to success.

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