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Add Volunteering to Your Unretirement Plan

It could lead to a part-time job. Plus: Bonus unretirement podcast

By Chris Farrell

(Next Avenue blogger and Unretirement author Chris Farrell now has a weekly Unretirement podcast on iTunes. You can listen to the first episode at the end of this article.)

Terry Araman, of Phoenix, may have had the shortest retirement I’ve come across working on this unretirement column. “After four days of retirement, I said: ‘This isn’t going to work for me,’” he laughed.

I had reached out to Araman because last summer, while I was giving a breakfast talk, he made an impassioned case for anyone contemplating a second-act shift into the nonprofit sector from the for-profit world to first spend time volunteering. I wanted to learn more about why Araman thought volunteering was so critical to the shift.

From Retirement to Volunteering to Part-Time Work

I did and want to pass along some advice from him, and others, about transitioning into volunteering and from there to paid part-time work.

“Volunteering is a great way to find out if you are a good fit for the organization,” Araman told me. “So many things have to match up. Your skills. The culture. Will the organization work with you if you want flexibility and time?”

Araman’s journey is illuminating. An Army medic for three years, serving in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, he subsequently had a two-decade career as a manager in the semiconductor business, retiring from Motorola/Freescale Semiconductor Arizona after taking a buyout in 2006 at age 59. When he quickly realized he needed to unretire to stay busy, Araman began volunteering at the Human Services Campus for the homeless run by the Lodestar Day Resource Center in Phoenix — in the mailroom.

That’s right. He went from management in the high-flying semiconductor business to the low-rung of the mailroom. And he loved it. “By starting out at that level, I got the chance to talk to the homeless,” he says. “I really got to know the clientele, the homeless community.”

This six-month volunteer gig led to a part-time paid position at the shelter’s front desk. In 2007, he switched to a part-time paid position for Lodestar, doing development work. During this time, Araman learned about the many homeless veterans in town. In 2008, he started volunteering with 14 veterans at the Mens Outreach Shelter on Madison Street in downtown Phoenix, a self-help group they’d formed. Their initiative led to the creation of the Madison Street Veterans Association (MSVA), a pioneering peer group for homeless vets, with Araman as executive director.

Catholic Charities Community Services Arizona recently became the nonprofit’s parent, renaming it MANA (Marine, Army, Navy, Air Force) House and at 68, Araman is stepping down from his operational duties to focus on doing unpaid advocacy and public policy work for veterans, mostly through the Unified Arizona Veterans, an umbrella group for 50 vets organizations.

Finding the Right Match to Volunteer

As Araman’s story shows, nonprofits — who employ about one in 10 American workers — can benefit from hiring talented and experienced boomers looking for purpose and a paycheck during their unretirement years. But making the shift isn’t necessarily easy or simple. This marriage takes time and effort.

“Boomers coming from the for-profit world may have the greatest of skills, and nonprofits may have the highest of expectations for them, but unless both parties make an effort to fit in with each other’s needs, both will surely be disappointed,” note the authors of the Conference Board report, A Perfect Match? How Nonprofits Are Tapping into the Boomer Talent Pool.

“Volunteering is critical to making the transition,” says David Garvey, director of the University of Connecticut’s department of public policy’s Nonprofit Leadership Program and co-director of Encore!Hartford, a transition training for unemployed corporate professionals over 50 looking for a managerial career in the nonprofit sector, public agencies and government.

Volunteering is like dating, a search for the right match. It’s an opportunity to learn about a nonprofit’s mission and its people to see how an organization really operates before applying for a paid position there. Perhaps most important, volunteering is a way of finding out whether the nonprofit’s mission really matters to you.

Drop the Romantic Notion


Too many people have romantic notions of what work is like at a nonprofit, says Nora Hannah, head of Experience Matters in Phoenix, which matches private sector workers looking for their next act with community-based nonprofits. Yes, the job can be fulfilling. But decision-making can be cumbersome, and people jockey for position and power (just like they do at companies). Also, your private sector experience may not be wholly transferable; you’ll need to learn the rules, regulations and expectations at nonprofits.

There may be an underappreciated financial advantage to volunteering. Remember the exchange in The Simpsons show when Marge tries to explain her volunteer work to Homer? His puzzled response, “Do you know that so-called volunteers don't even get paid?" Well, the lack of money coming in offers a chance to test out your household budget.

If the volunteer stint does lead to a job, will you be OK with the lower pay that typically comes with nonprofit work? Do the numbers add up? Is the lifestyle change worth it to you?

Keep in mind that even though you won’t earn a salary as a volunteer, you’ll gain a different, but valuable, currency — a network to tap for potential paid, part-time jobs and referrals. Remember: half or more of all jobs come through informal channels, including industry connections.

Encore!Hartford requires its Fellows to volunteer during its four-month program. The reason? Someone going through Encore!Hartford may know plenty of people in engineering, insurance or some other industry, but likely has limited contacts among nonprofits.

A Mission That's Right for You

Hannah, of Experience Matters in Phoenix, says that when thinking about where to volunteer, mission takes primacy.  “If the mission isn’t a calling for you it rarely works out,” she says.

The mission and the network certainly worked out well for Beasy McGlothlin, 66. She volunteered as a mentor with YouthCARE’s Young Women’s Mentoring Program while working as a second vice president at Travelers Insurance in Minnesota. After retiring in 2007, McGlothlin went on YouthCARE's board, which led to her working for the group in a paid part-time position as a fundraiser (she retired from that job in 2012). McGlothlin was also on the board of the St. Paul City Primary School, a charter school in a low-income neighborhood. That also spun into a part-time job as a fundraiser; she retired from that one in 2012.

Although McGlothlin has stopped working for pay, she's still mentoring. “I wanted to do something that gave rewards of the heart,” she said. “This is what I wanted to do with my life when I retired.”

If you think nonprofit work might be an option in your unretirement, I’d suggest adding volunteering to your plan. The emotional and financial payoff can be huge.

Photograph of Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author of the books "Purpose and a Paycheck:  Finding Meaning, Money and Happiness in the Second Half of Life" and "Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community and the Good Life." Read More
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