There are so very many volunteer choices that it’s easy to get paralyzed by the idea of finding the “perfect” choice for ourselves. We can spend hours thinking of the good — and the bad — of each idea. And… end up doing none.
So this post will highlight all the many choices you have — but also give you a way to weed through them so you find those that will give you the most satisfaction.
Why volunteer in the first place?
There are almost as many reasons why people volunteer as there are volunteer opportunities — but they all have one benefit in common. They make us feel good.
You can help individuals to learn, to eat, to succeed in life. You can help animals. You can help causes that resonate with you. You can feel good about your successes. At a minimum, you can feel good that you are TRYING to help — unlike most other people. Even if you are volunteering deep in the muck of horrible situations, e.g., human trafficking, animal abuse, battered women, you will still feel good about yourself for doing something to help.
According to AtriaSeniorLiving.com, “…volunteering can reduce stress, improve mood, help prevent loneliness and lower the risk of developing high blood pressure. So, for older adults with physical ailments, volunteering can actually make you feel better…. and stay active.”
It’s also part of leaving a legacy behind. You may or may not have raised kids to leave for the future, but all of us can try to leave the world a better place in some way. Many people spend their whole lives trying to help others. Others wake up in their 40s or 50s with a sudden, and often surprising-to-them, desire to “pay it forward.”
Whether volunteering is a new urge or a life-long interest, retirement gives you the time to make a big difference. People 65+ make up 25% of all volunteers in the U.S. — without us the economy would take a very big hit.
How helpful to others is your city or state?
NationalService.gov says the worst of the 50 metropolitan areas they track — meaning they have the fewest volunteers helping others — are:
- #50: Miami/FortLauderdale/West Palm Beach FL
- #49: Las Vegas/Henderson/Paradise NV
- #48: Buffalo/Cheektowaga/Niagara Falls NY
- #47: NY/NJ/PA Metro Area
- #46: Los Angeles/Long Beach/Anaheim CA
The worst states — having the fewest volunteers — include from above FL, NV, NY, and CA plus Mississippi and Louisiana. These states have volunteer rates from 23-26%.
States with the highest percentages of citizens who volunteer include:
- Utah (51%)
- Minnesota (45%)
- Oregon (43%)
- Iowa (42%)
- Alaska (41%)
- Nebraska (40%)
How do you choose the right “cause” for yourself?
Part of the psychology (and pathology!) of “paralysis by analysis” is:
- Assuming there is one best choice, and
- Assuming our choice is permanent — and therefore fearing we’ll regret it
Neither of the above is true for volunteering.
- First — there is no one best choice. And even if there were, that best choice could change tomorrow. Know that there are several opportunities that could work for you — where you could make a difference and feel good about it.
- Most important — no decision on volunteering is ever permanent. These aren’t jobs. We can quit on a dime(!)
I recommend you review the opportunities in the next section. Toss into the pot anything you’ve ever thought you might like — either national or local. Then choose five that sound the most interesting. But give yourself the freedom to change your mind on the five anytime you want. Next week. Tomorrow. In an hour(!) Remove anything. Replace anything. Add anything.
Make a plan to “test drive” your (current!) five best ideas over the next six months. Join one and “audition” it to see if it’s right for you. You’re giving it a tryout — you’re not committed. See if you like what you end up doing there. Does it feel worthwhile to you? Do you like/respect the people you’re dealing with?
Sometimes we hesitate because we project a problem. For example, I love animals and adore dogs. But I was always hesitant to volunteer for ASPCA or any local dog shelter — because I feared I would feel too terrible for the animals caged there. But while writing this I just decided to give it a “tryout” and see. Maybe my fears are unfounded. Maybe they are correct. The only way to know is to try it and see what’s true.
If you either love or dislike your first pick for volunteering– your decision is easy. Love it = continue. Dislike it = drop it. If your feelings about it are just so-so, then pause it and go to your next of the five options. Continue down your list until you find one that inspires you.
Volunteer opportunities — what are our options?
According to the Corporation for National Community & Service, the most common forms of volunteering are:
- Collecting, serving, preparing, or distributing food
- Fundraising or selling items to raise money
- Engaging in general labor, like helping build homes or clean up parks
- Tutoring or teaching
- Mentoring the youth
- Collecting, making, or distributing clothing
But if these don’t appeal to you, don’t be limited by them. Pretty much any non-profit based in your city or county needs volunteers. Just call and ask.
There’s a list that goes on and on published by CheatSheet.com on the best volunteer opportunities. Everything from the Senior Corps and RSVP to the National Park Service and Road Scholars (where you combine your love of travel with volunteering).
AARP has their own list of best volunteer opportunities, including two “virtual volunteer” options. And, if you go to aarp.org and type in “volunteer opportunities” in their search bar — they have a service that will put you in touch with local options. You just click on your state, then your city. I put in my tiny (7K residents) city — and AARP offered several local options for me — so I’m sure they will have choices for you as well.