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Find a great volunteer job in retirement—plus perks

Aside from the satisfaction, some positions offer valuable extras

Published: May 2014
Alan Cohen leads tour groups in Central Park in New York City.

Alan Cohen, 68, considers himself a lucky guy. At least 6 hours per month, in one of the prettiest places in New York City, he expounds on a great love in his life. And his listeners are usually appreciative.

Cohen is a volunteer tour guide in Central Park, and his love is the park. “I’m surrounded by beauty,” said the psychologist and former educator, “and I’m happy to share it with people.”

Across the U.S., a whole lot of people have found their bliss working for nothing. An estimated 64.5 million Americans volunteer more than 7.9 billion hours each year. That’s according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that finances and runs AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and other national-service programs. In a recent survey by Consumer Reports National Research Center, two-thirds of respondents ages 55 to 70 who hadn’t yet retired said they expected to spend more time volunteering in retirement.

By helping others, many volunteers stand to reap benefits themselves. Studies have connected volunteering with reduced depression and higher brain activity. It is even correlated with living longer.

“The biggest thing is to find an opportunity that suits you,” Samantha Warfield, a spokeswoman for the CNCS, said. “Do what you’re passionate about.”

It's like a job but more fun

Finding the right volunteer work might seem daunting, but in some cases the experience isn’t so different from seeking a job that pays. Here are tips to consider.

• Be open-minded. Ask for recommendations from friends, check the websites of organizations of interest, or use a search engine that consolidates postings. When we searched “volunteer opps” on Idealist.org, for instance, the results were varied and intriguing. Entering “show business” and “New York metro area” yielded a call for production staff and actors for a play about mental health. “Food” and “Atlanta” brought up a request for people to research restaurants for a fundraiser called Dining Out for Life. (You should also try the websites VolunteerMatch.org, Serve.gov, and for a long-term, full-time commitment, NationalService.gov.)

• Capitalize on your background. When you call an organization, mention the skills honed in your career—unless you want something completely different. In Cohen’s search, he decided not to volunteer with a group that helped the homeless, because it wanted him to lead group therapy sessions, which was too similar to his job.

• Start small. Get your feet wet through short stints—say, an hour per week reading to a preschooler or 2 hours in a food pantry. Take a friend for support. Don’t settle for anything boring or unpleasant, but note that as a newbie you probably won’t get the best position right away.

• Get training. A plum spot may require extra education. Before volunteers at the Humane Society of Missouri in St. Louis can work directly with shelter dogs, for instance, they must complete, at a minimum, two on-site classes, view three online training videos, and attend three 2-hour sessions with experienced volunteer mentors. To lead Central Park tours, Cohen had to be interviewed, take classes that required homework, and deliver a speech on one aspect of the park to a panel of other volunteers.

Read Consumer Reports Money Adviser's advice on retirement planning.

Note the costs—and perks

Volunteering doesn’t pay a salary, and in some cases it can cost you. You may have to purchase a uniform or pay to join an organization. You also may be asked to donate money. You can’t deduct the value of your volunteer hours, but you can write off the cost of goods you purchase for your organization. Travel for volunteer work is generally deductible; the standard charitable auto-mileage rate is currently 14 cents per mile.

That said, the organization may offer benefits that save you money. Volunteers at the Field Museum in Chicago and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts get museum-store and restaurant discounts, and admission to other museums in the area, among other perks. “Friends” of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., occasionally get free or discounted tickets.

AmeriCorps might offer the most impressive benefit. Those who complete a term of service—a full-time commitment lasting up to a year—are eligible for an award to pay for higher-education expenses or qualified loan repayments. The Segal Americorps Education Award is equal to the maximum federal Pell Grant ($5,730 from July 2014 through June 2015). If you’re 55 or older, you can give it to a child, grandchild, or foster child. What’s more, more than 100 colleges and universities match those awards.

 

Editor's Note:

A version of this article also appeared in the June 2014 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.



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