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Careers

Find the Right Match for Volunteer Work

Finding the right volunteer position may require legwork, but it's worth it.

When Jim and Sylvia Beaton sit down to dinner, they often talk about their work-the frustrations, the difficulties, the daily accomplishments. But their discussions focus on labors of love, not money. The Beatons, who live in Hyde Park, Mass., are among the growing number of retirees who have decided to turn their professional expertise into volunteer careers. They work as much as they want, maybe at times even more than they did before. The rewards are spiritual and tangible, but not bankable.For much of his career, Jim, 66, managed real estate as a vice-president for New England Financial Corp. in Boston. For several years, he's been working on a project to acquire land on Cape Cod for a farm that would be used to rehabilitate the homeless by teaching them skills such as cooking, computing and maintenance. Sylvia, 63, who owned a nursing home for 26 years, sits on the board of a nonprofit domestic violence organization. She raises money and has helped the group, which runs a shelter, establish an outreach program that counsels battered women.

"It's just a part of our lives, like our jobs were, but more fulfilling," Sylvia says. "We are giving back. We were fortunate in our lives, and in doing something positive for others, you get something too."

The Beatons are some of the lucky retirees who have found suitable outlets for their charitable aspirations. Many retirees who seek meaningful volunteer positions end up sorely disappointed. They find themselves dishing out food in soup kitchens or carrying flowers to the sick in hospitals-worthwhile activities, but not the kind of satisfying work that transforms volunteering into an avocation.

"People think it should be so easy," says John Gomperts, executive director of Experience Corps (www.experiencecorps.com), a nonprofit that oversees 1,800 retirees over age 55 in 14 cities to tutor and mentor students in urban public schools. "You think you'll just let somebody know you have the time and they'll be happy to have you. It turns out to be a little more complicated to find the kind of opportunity that really rings your bell."

According to Gomperts and other experts, many nonprofits have not created volunteer positions that would make the best use of an older person's experience. But that's changing as retirement begins to stretch for decades and as baby-boomer professionals, many retiring early, look to this new stage in life as a time to engage in consequential service work. Also, a growing number of organizations are attempting to build up post-career opportunities by opening volunteer placement centers, developing service programs geared to retirees and advising nonprofits on how to accommodate older adults who yearn to use the expertise they've spent decades honing.

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Want to Volunteer

American Society on Aging (www.asaging.org/civiceng; 415-974-9600). Its Civic Engagement Web page offers information and links.

Civic Ventures (www.civicventures.org; 415-430-0141). Link to the think tank's Experience Corps and The Next Chapter for positions.

Hands On Network (www.handsonnetwork.org; 404-979-2900). Click "Volunteers" for local info.

Senior Corps (www.seniorcorps.org; 202-606-5000). Offers several volunteer programs.

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Volunteer Match (www.volunteermatch.org; 415-241-6868). Search by locality and interest.

Pursue Your Passion
If you want to volunteer, one of the first steps is to find your passion. "My advice is to approach this the same way you would a job search," says Mary Westropp, who helps older adults find volunteer placements in the Boston metropolitan area for New Directions Inc., a job-search firm for senior-level professionals. "Do a little self-assessment. What matters to you most in this world? Homelessness? Disadvantaged employment? The environment?" Once you decide, she says, tell as many people as you can, especially in the area in which you want to serve.

Marc Freedman, president of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco nonprofit that promotes civic engagement among older adults, says that you should find a group "that's making the kind of change in the world that you want to be part of. Try to find someone there who will take the time to answer your questions and find out a little bit about your background and skills." (Experience Corps is a Civic Ventures program.)

That's just what Jim Down did. Four years ago, after retiring at age 50 as Boston branch manager for New York-based Mercer Management Consulting, he wanted to transfer his management skills to the nonprofit world. After intensive networking, he found a position with Oxfam International, helping with strategic planning. Then he became involved with Outward Bound, developing a program aimed at building teamwork and leadership skills for executives. "I spent a fair amount of time talking to people up front to determine if what they needed was what I was ready to do," he says. "I told them I didn't want to be just another board member. I wanted to feel like I could have real impact on the organization."

Getting a Foot in the Door
But Down warns that some nonprofits may resist your entreaties: "You have to find organizations, and particularly leadership, that want to change and don't view you as a threat." The trick, he says, is to present your qualifications without implying that you know more than the group's leaders.

Jim Beaton ran into no resistance when he was taken on by Livia Davis, who faced zoning problems and citizen protests since she started pursuing the homeless project in 2000. Then Beaton came along. "Because of Jim's background, he was able to add some credibility," she says.

If you have a hard time getting your foot in the door, offer to perform an entry-level job, such as handing out fliers. Eventually, you can make suggestions that prove your know-how. Another avenue is to try using an organization that finds placements for prospective volunteers

As with any job search, finding the right volunteer fit requires patience. "Take your time, be aware that organizations may not be used to this, and that it is hit or miss. Luckily, there are some hits," says Andy Nelson, executive director of Hands On Portland, an Oregon affiliate of Hands On Network, a nationwide group that develops volunteer projects. And if one position doesn't work out, go on to something else. "Sometimes employment doesn't work out either. Acknowledge that. It's about chemistry," he says.

Create Your Own Volunteer Work
When opportunity doesn't knock, you can start something of your own. Marilyn Gaston, 67, a physician, and Gayle Porter, 68, a clinical psychologist, had spent their careers in medicine, research and public service. Gaston was an assistant surgeon general in the federal Public Health Service, and Porter was on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University, specializing in children and adolescents. After they retired, the two women, both from Bethesda, Md., decided to use their skills to pursue a longtime passion: to empower middle-age and older African-American women to improve their health.

After raising money from foundations, they founded Sister Circles, which bring together African-American women for seminars, advice and camaraderie. For example, the circles counsel women on how to prevent chronic diseases, such as diabetes. The two also wrote a health-advice book for black women. Gaston and Porter are collecting data from the circles, with an eye toward another book.

The two view this venture as a way to perform a mission that propelled them into social policy in the first place. "It's just gratifying to know that we are part of a process that can change not only the health outcomes of women who are part of this circle, but also their families and the community," says Gaston. The two were recently nominated for a Purpose Prize, a new award created by Civic Ventures to recognize individuals older than 60 who use their creativity to address social needs. Winners will receive $100,000 plus technical support for their work.

Experts warn that volunteering can take a lot of time, so it's a good idea to seek a balance. However, the rewards may be worth the commitment. Jim Beaton says his new work is sometimes more stressful than his paid job was. "These people in the nonprofit community work as hard, or harder, than those in the corporate world," he says. "It's been a joy to be associated with them and offer them some assistance."