Finding Purpose in Volunteering

Finding Purpose in Volunteering

The last day of full time work can be quite an adjustment.  Is your job the way you define yourself?  Does retirement give you any sense of loss of self-worth?

David Brooks, in his recent excellent book Second Mountain, describes career as being the first mountain that we climb. A second mountain can be a new set of challenges, often with a renewed sense of purpose and even moral fulfillment.

For many of the people interviewed for my book, they shifted energy into volunteering, and found their reinvented purpose as they climb their second mountain.

Here’s what they have to say about how volunteering gave them a renewed purpose.

“I don’t think about having an obligation to give back.  It’s just something I have always done.”

“Installing artificial hands to amputees in Panama is life changing for them, really life changing.  You can hold brooms, you can drive a tractor, you can use a shovel.”

“I guess it’s my dream of making sure that this outdoor preschool goes on.  It’s been around since the mid-50’s, and I’ve been concerned about some challenges in this day and age.”

“There’s not much more that we can do that’s more emotional than giving a family the keys to their house that they helped build and I’ve been involved in for months of construction.  Every time we have the dedication of new homes, there’s never a dry eye in the house.”

“Being a cancer survivor motivates me to work at a resale shop that benefits cancer research.”

“Working with social entrepreneurs as a mentor is one of the most gratifying things I have ever done.  Seeing the kind of progress they can make.”

“Two and a half weeks after Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas, our boatload of food and relief supplies constituted the only aid that had made it to Green Turtle Cay.  Several people said that if we didn’t arrive with food, they would have gone hungry.”

“I have taught a Buddhist form of meditation in a maximum security prison.  You can see the men starting to understand that there is a way to deal with their impulses.”

Giving back is only part of the story.  There are other elements of purpose that come from volunteering.

“Part of my volunteering is the benefit to the organization, but part of it is the geeky side of me that has not done engineering in 40 years.  Those are parts of my brain I hadn’t used.”

“I think maybe one of the best benefits of working on socially impactful projects is what that says to our kids, that this is something you can do.”

“When I was mentoring executive women, I found just by engaging with them regularly, it grounded me in core leadership principles just to be talking about it every month.”

“Pulling an invasive Scotch broom was fun, and that led me to write the script for the movie they were making about preserving the dunes.”

“After we move to Virginia, am I going to meet people?  We’re 70 years old.  That’s probably why I want to volunteer, to meet people.”

Can volunteering give you a renewed sense of purpose?

Only you will know if volunteering is a way to give you a new passion for something that fills a personal need for you at this stage of life.  Here is some collective wisdom from the interviewees and my own observations.

  1. COVID 19 certainly has upended volunteering. Many traditional volunteer organizations have had to reinvent themselves to adjust to the times.  The mission of those organizations remains intact, and in many cases has dramatically expanded.  How they deliver their services may have changed, and your contribution may even be to help them reimagine how they should work in this new environment.
  2. There are lots of sources for finding volunteer work. Many communities have their own local website, and there are numerous national websites. Try this one which is valuable no matter where you reside. Once you’re on the website, input your local Zipcode and numerous opportunities will appear.  Equally important is word of mouth.  Do you know someone who volunteers?  Can they tell you about their experience and give you guidance on finding something right for you?
  3. There is often uncertainty about whether you are qualified for the volunteer work. Don’t be.  Over the years, these organizations have learned how to match your skills to their needs.  They typically have a need for a variety of skills.  It will be their task to figure out how you can fit to their needs.

Sense of purpose and volunteering go hand in glove for many people, especially when they have available time in their retirement years.

Richard Haiduck is the author of the upcoming book Tales of Retirement. It is based on 75+ interviews with BabyBoomers who are reinventing themselves in their retirement.  More information can be found at or on Twitter @richardhaiduck