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Image by Ray Sangga Kusuma on Unsplash.

Many years ago, when I was living in San Francisco, I volunteered with an animal rescue group. I still remember the first words our Volunteering Coordinator said during our orientation.

She asked why we were volunteering. We talked about having fun and wanting to play with the animals. 

Rather than expressing dismay at our frivolous, “I’m in this for me” answers, she applauded. The best volunteers, she said, are the selfish volunteers. They want to gain something for themselves. They don’t come in talking about how to make a difference.

I was assigned to help with the van. We went all over town, setting up shop for adoptions. I had a great time while it lasted.

I remember this experience when I see articles encouraging people to see volunteer work as the solution to all kinds of problems.

Lonely? Volunteer and you’ll meet friendly, like-minded people.

Bored? Volunteer and you’ll keep busy!

Reached retirement age? Replace paid work with volunteering. 

Alone on holidays? Show up somewhere and volunteer!

In particular, volunteering should not be something “older” people do because they’re expected to “leave a legacy.” People of all ages volunteer…or don’t. I have a whole chapter on this topic in my book.

Volunteer work can be satisfying for many people.  

In her book Generally Speaking, Claudia Kennedy (the first female three-star general in the US Army) found great emotional rewards from reading to children. It was a complete escape from her job, she writes; they had no idea who she was.  

Work with animals? Depending on the rescue agency, you can make a huge difference. Most animal charities rely heavily on volunteers. I worked briefly with the local animal rescue group here in Philly and was very impressed with the people I met. They represent a variety of backgrounds and age groups. They care for the animals but also had fun: we had a lunch together and I’m still friends with someone I met through them. 

Special events? When I lived in a small town in New Mexico, a lot of us would volunteer to help direct traffic for the annual bike race. We also volunteered to help with marathon runs. I would take my dog and we both had fun.

But volunteer work it’s not a panacea. If you’re not genuinely interested in a cause, and you don’t enjoy the activity, there’s not much point. In fact, if you expect too much, volunteering can be disappointing and frustrating

(1) Some opportunities are highly organized and even restricted.

Recently I saw an article encouraging people to show up at an animal shelter on a holiday, eager to volunteer. That’s ridiculous. Typically volunteers must go through orientation and training. You can’t just walk up. If you’re genuinely interested in volunteering, call ahead and find out exactly what’s required…and if opportunities are even available. 

Working with children? These days you may need a background check as well as an orientation.

(2) Be sure you’re needed.

Some groups and events attract too many volunteers. Volunteer coordinators can have trouble saying “no.” Standing around can be frustrating.

In particular, some soup kitchens are overcrowded with volunteers on Christmas Day and Thanksgiving. Find out if they accept volunteers and if you’ll really be needed.

(3) Don’t be too quick to offer professional expertise.

I once offered to help an organization with its marketing. After I made some suggestions, they nodded politely and asked if I wanted to help with the rummage sale. 

Many nonprofit organizations can pay for professional services if they really need them. Make sure they really need what you offer, and let them initiate the request. It’s a good idea to send them a bill at your regular rates, with the notation “Donation of services.” Talk to your tax preparer too. 

If I believe in the organization’s mission, I sometimes donate a website review for silent auctions: the group raises $300 or more and I am happy to provide the service. Some groups appreciate it; some don’t understand what they’re getting. 

(4) Don’t make long-term commitments if you’re new to the area or new to the organization.

In my book on moving, I advise against making commitments early. When you’re new to an area, it’s tempting to try everything but that’s rarely a good idea.

One of my interviewees said, “I worked with an animal shelter for years. But when I moved, I discovered the local shelter operated with a completely different philosophy. It wasn’t for me.”

(5) Know your limits and strengths. 

I’ve tried working with kids. They hate me. I’m better with animals but I can’t handle strong dogs. For awhile I wrote blurbs for online postings of adoptable animals…until the system changed and they stopped using them.

Currently, I volunteer to usher at local theaters; I can’t do much harm handing out programs, they really appreciate us, and the show is free. 

 Finally, volunteer work rarely compensates for deficits in other areas of your life. 

If you genuinely value working for money, you’ll find volunteer work brings a different kind of energy. Some people find they love the experience and don’t miss paid work at all. Others wind up feeling frustrated.

If you’re lonely, you may fall into a warm, friendly volunteer group that leads to friendship and fulfillment. Or you may find yourself feeling worse than before. 

More generally, if you’re feeling miserable and needy, you won’t attract positive experiences. I’ve said many times: Friends are like bank loans. They come when you don’t need them. That applies here, too.