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Finding purpose in skills-based volunteering

Key takeaways

  • Many nonprofits are eager for strategic guidance, and retired professionals with in-demand skills can have a significant impact.
  • Older adults who volunteer for as little as 2 hours per week can substantially improve their health and well-being.
  • There are a growing number of organizations that match retired professionals with projects in need of highly skilled volunteers.

Since Debra Mailman retired from her position as a senior program manager at Microsoft 5 years ago, she's redeployed her tech and project management skills to the nonprofit sector as a volunteer.

She was a disaster recovery volunteer in Dominica, a tiny island in the West Indies, following Hurricane Maria, a disaster resource manager in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and she's currently lending a hand helping refugees from Afghanistan in a resettlement program in Maine.

"When I retired, I knew I was done with work," Mailman said. "I wanted to leave while I was still viable and strong, but I was asking what do I do next?"

Mailman, who lives in Seattle, Washington, tapped into a growing movement for retirees—skills-based volunteering, which pairs professional expertise in specialized areas such as accounting, digital and social media marketing, project management, and technology with nonprofit organizations.

Expanding the meaning of volunteer work

"Skills-based volunteering expands people's definition of giving back," said Teresa Pelletier, vice president of community relations at Fidelity Investments. "People traditionally think about donations and philanthropy and traditional volunteerism, but this is a way to really scale impact."

There are a growing number of organizations that match retired professionals, who want to leverage their skills, with volunteer projects that can make a difference or support their interests and favorite causes. "That's where the real magic happens," Pelletier said.

As they emerge from the pandemic, many nonprofits are eager for strategic guidance. And retired professionals like Mailman, with plenty of runway ahead, are looking for ways to stay engaged mentally, keep a social network, and devote time to giving back in a meaningful way.

"I listened to a lot of people after I retired," Mailman said. "They basically said don't make long-term commitments. Try a bunch of things, if it works, it works."

Since then, her pro bono projects have included establishing financial documentation and key performance indicator tracking systems, transitioning intake processes from a paper-based to electronic system, and training staff and volunteers on new online processes.

"For the resettlement project, I'm setting up spreadsheets and helping them source donated furniture and housing at a reasonable price," she said.

The dual rewards of skills-based volunteering

Volunteering can be rewarding for both the giver and receiver. Older adults who volunteer for as little as 2 hours per week can substantially lower their risk of early death, become more physically active, and improve their sense of well-being compared with those who don't volunteer, according to a study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.*

"Our results show that volunteerism among older adults doesn't just strengthen communities, but enriches our own lives by strengthening our bonds to others and helping us feel a sense of purpose and well-being," according to study co-author Eric Kim, research scientist in the Chan School's Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

The study findings were based on interviews and surveys from nearly 13,000 participants in the Health and Retirement Study of older US adults.

The flip side: "People can make a profound impact on an organization by lending their skills and helping a nonprofit increase their capacity through solving a business challenge or taking on a marketing project," Pelletier said.

"Over these past 2 years, in particular, nonprofits have been faced with challenges: fewer resources, more demand, and difficulties in hiring the type of people with the skills they need," she said.

"Nonprofits have had to make tough decisions around where to spend money," Jackie Redmond, community relations manager at Fidelity, added. "Skills-based volunteering is a way to fill that gap. It is a nice, win-win both for the volunteer and for the nonprofit where the nonprofit is getting that infusion of skill and time and talent. And then the volunteer is getting an opportunity to build skill and amplify their impact."

Finding opportunities within your existing network

For Mailman, the 3 months of relief work in Houston in 2017 came from connecting with Jewish Family Service of Houston through her board position at the Seattle Jewish Federation. "I made a bunch of phone calls and said, 'Hey, take me down. I'll work for nothing. Let me know what I can do.'"

The following year, through IsraAID, a global team of humanitarian professionals from around the world that come together to provide urgent aid and assist in disaster recovery, she was able to lend her logistic expertise in Dominica. "I had never done construction management work in my entire life, but it's project management," Mailman said. "Right? You put together the builders with the supplies, with the homeowners; you work at a timeline."

Mailman said that getting started with her active volunteering was like a job search. "Talk to people who are doing things that you're interested in doing," she said. "Rewrite your resume so that it's not all focused on corporate. And be willing to start anywhere and do anything that is needed."

Finally, know what's vital to you. "Volunteering is not going to make you important or famous," Mailman said. "You have to do it because you have a sense of who you are. If your work still defines you, this is not the place to be."

Getting involved

Start with nonprofits you know . Search for volunteering prospects with organizations you're already connected to as a donor or board member.

Seek out local nonprofits near you . Many big cities and states have connectors for volunteer opportunities. For example, there's Spark the Change Colorado and NYC Service in New York City.

Explore the skills-based volunteer boards . For a broader picture, AARP's Create the Good and VolunteerMatch are places to research opportunities. Or seek out nonprofits that need your expertise through Common Impact, Taproot Foundation or Executive Service Corps-US. Idealist has a searchable database of volunteer and paid positions. Catchafire is also a good source for volunteering for retired pros. The federal government's RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program)—one of the biggest volunteer networks in the country for people 55 and over—has an established interview vetting method to help make the volunteer work a hit for each party.

"The neat thing with skills-based volunteering is one door opens the next door, opens the next door," Mailman said. "And I'm retired, so I get to choose which ones I want to say yes to."

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* "Volunteering and Subsequent Health and Well-Being in Older Adults: An Outcome-Wide Longitudinal Approach," American Journal of Preventative Medicine; Eric S. Kim, PhD, et al.

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