Volunteering in retirement

A guide to giving something back

Far from marking the end of anything, retirement can be a launchpad for new opportunities and challenges. You’ve got time, experience and a wealth of wisdom, so giving your services for free can seem like a great next step. But how do you get started?

By Bibi Berki

There are lots of charities and community groups that want to snap you up as soon as you wave goodbye to the workplace. Retirees make great volunteers.

What can I offer as a volunteer?

In the UK, 65 to 74-year-olds are most likely to volunteer 1 and many organisations depend on this valuable, free workforce. Research by Age UK found that older volunteers were motivated and skilled, able and willing to share their time and give long-term commitments, and often had great social links that helped with recruiting more people 2.

And it’s a two-way relationship. Benefits for the individual include enhanced mental and physical health prospects, improved life satisfaction, better social interaction and a general feeling of usefulness due to having a role to play in society 2.

Clive Baulch is a 63-year-old former probation officer from South London. Having suffered a major stroke himself, he found he could make a valuable contribution to the Stroke Association, so began helping people with aphasia to talk again or to communicate in other ways. He also manages a monthly stroke club.

For him, the rewards have been plentiful and include lessons in patience and empathy. He says: “I like to share my own stroke story to encourage motivation. I get a real kick out of seeing others laughing and feeling that they have accomplished something that they thought was beyond their reach.”

Do many people volunteer after retirement?

The historic retirement ages of 60 for women and 65 for men were set in the 1940s and are now a thing of the past according to Alistair McQueen, Head of Savings & Retirement at Aviva.

“Today we have a record 1.3 million people working beyond their 65th birthday 3 – this number has tripled since the year 2000 – and countless more are giving their time as volunteers,” he says. “It’s estimated that two-thirds of those over the age of 50 volunteered in the past year 4. That's an amazing 16 million people.”

And when Aviva asked retired people what they most missed about work, it wasn’t the money. “Friends, sense of achievement and purpose were the three things people missed the most,” 5 adds Alistair, “and those can be brilliantly provided by volunteering.”

Sam Mauger, Chief Executive of the Third Age Trust, a 420,000-strong voluntary educational movement for retired and semi-retired people, believes that without this older volunteer workforce many services would be limited in their scope. “Wherever there is volunteering you will find older people involved,” she adds.   

What should I consider before volunteering?

Ask yourself what you want from voluntary work. Are you looking for something that will be vocational and challenging? Or are you interested in a part-time commitment?

Volunteering can be divided into two categories – formal (giving unpaid help through a group, club or organisation) or informal (offering unpaid help as an individual to people who are not a relative). Within these definitions lie a multitude of roles from charity shop work and hospital visiting to teaching and mentoring.

It might sound obvious, but as volunteering isn’t a paid job it doesn’t come with employment rights. However, many charitable organisations will provide you with a volunteer agreement that sets out whether you will receive training and if you're covered by employer or public liability insurance. It may also outline any expenses you can claim.

Dave Sinclair, who provides online advice on post-retirement volunteering, believes it’s important to identify what you liked about your previous work.

“Analyse the good things that work’s given you as an individual over the years,” he suggests. “If these are the things that have given me benefits then I want to carry on and work to get the same things in retirement. Not necessarily similar work, but work that gives me similar benefits.”

He also recommends thinking about how much you can commit to. Some positions are flexible and will allow you to take time off, but most will require a degree of dedication.

Where can I find out more about becoming a volunteer?

As always, the internet is a great place to start. Useful resources include the Government’s webpage on volunteering and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), the umbrella body for the sector.

For some, it may be sensible to dip your toe in the water first. That’s certainly the advice from Clive.

“When I first retired, I volunteered with several charities and good causes – too many really and for a time it made for a full-time occupation,” he explains. “My advice would be to wait a while before plunging into volunteering.

“The worst thing you can do is to go for broke and volunteer everywhere all at the same time. Pick a charity you are really sure you like and start with them.”

Can age be an asset when volunteering?

Absolutely. UK charity Volunteering Matters has more than 10,000 over-50s on its books. Many work on the award-winning Grandmentor programme, which matches people aged 50 and over with young care-leavers. Volunteers receive training so they can help mentees unlock their skills and shape their own futures.

And age isn’t a barrier when it comes to taking your skills further afield. We might associate Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) with university leavers, but more than a third of its international volunteers are over 50.

A spokesperson for VSO explained: “We very much encourage senior volunteers to apply as they bring a wealth of skills and many more years of professional experience.”

Hazel Squire, a 60-year-old retired teacher from Leicester, fulfilled a long-held ambition when she spent several months teaching in Argentina and the Galapagos Islands through the organisation Projects Abroad. Having used some of her pension money to travel around South America, she wanted to find a way of returning while being of use to local communities.

She says: “I feel that it gave me a real boost at a point when I was starting a new phase of life, reminding me of the need to be curious, open and get on out there and do things.”

And her advice for anyone thinking of broadening their horizons? “This is your chance to rediscover your strengths and your interests. You have a lot to give and this will be very welcome, but you will also gain so much from the experience, including a whole new set of friends and interests that will provide the baseline for your next adventure.”

Still thinking about becoming a volunteer?

The final tip is to get excited. If you’ve always wanted to work on a steam train, now’s the time. If you’ve sat behind a desk all your working life, why not get your hands dirty and help clean rivers or tend a sensory garden?

With a little research, advice and exploration, you could be on the verge of a new life experience you never saw coming.

Look after yourself in retirement

See more tips and ideas on taking care of yourself, from staying healthy to seeing the world.