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Retirement With A Purpose

Resource type: News

Forbes Magazine |

When Betty Otte retired in the mid-1990s, she was burned out and ready for some well-deserved rest and relaxation. For 10 years, she had worked hard managing more than a dozen weight loss centers in the Orange County, Calif., area, where she was in charge of some 350 people. So Otte decided to check out of the 9-to-5 beat. She planned getaways to a couple of spas, and concentrated on just kicking back. But, only months later, Otte actually started to feel bored. The life of retirement wasn’t challenging. She felt restless. “It was fun, but only for the first six months,” Otte says. “Then I needed a reason to get up in the morning. When I left the company, I really missed the people. I missed the camaraderie.” So Otte decided to put her business skills to use. She began volunteering at the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), a free business counseling and advice service. The nonprofit shop, which works closely with the U.S. Small Business Administration, has more than 10,000 working and retired business professionals who volunteer to help entrepreneurs learn everything from writing a business plan to marketing skills. Otte now volunteers at the SCORE offices in Santa Ana, Calif., twice per month, offering one-on-one guidance to a new generation of American small business owners. “If there is an opportunity to help people go through the pains of starting and running a small business, that draws me in,” she says. Today, there are millions of Americans retiring and looking for ways to give back to their communities. After decades spent fine-tuning their professional skills, these retirees are looking to dedicate effort to the causes and programs they care about, whether it’s mentoring children, caring for the elderly or pitching in to help out after a natural disaster strikes. Nonprofits across the country demand the help and time of volunteers and many of them are looking specifically for the skill sets offered by older Americans. One way to track down age 55-plus service opportunities is to go to There, click on “Find A Volunteer Opportunity.” The search engine, powered by VolunteerMatch, provides access to volunteer opportunities suited to the skills and experience of age 55-plus volunteers. Punch in your zip code and interest area and then surf through the opportunities located nearest you. Such a service will probably prove increasingly sought after and popular given the upswing among older Americans in volunteering. In fact, adult volunteering has jumped sharply in recent years, increasing nearly 30% between 1974 and 2005, according to a study conducted by the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS), a public-private partnership that engages Americans in volunteering through three programs: Senior Corps, AmeriCorps and Learn and Serve America. That jump in volunteering among Americans is in part explained by the number of national tragedies that have beset the country in recent years, from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to Hurricane Katrina, says Kevin Cramer, deputy director for research and policy development at the CNCS. “Recent events have boosted everybody’s interest in volunteering,” Cramer says. “That drove people to get involved and help out.” At the same time, there has been a significant increase in the number of organizations that are in need of more resources and volunteers. Between 1989 and 2004, the number of public charities more than doubled in the U.S. About 81% of nonprofits use volunteers. Dispelling their stereotype as the self-centered “Me Generation,” baby boomers in their late 40s to mid-50s are volunteering at higher rates than did the previous generation at midlife. Boomers were volunteering at lower rates than their predecessors while in their 30s, but that trend has reversed. Cramer explains baby boomers’ relatively high volunteer rate today to two factors. For one, there is the role of educational attainment. Midlife adults (age 45-64) are three times as likely to have a four-year college degree today as they were 15 years ago (from 11.5% to 29.5%). There is a substantial connection between education levels and volunteering, Cramer points out. Educated people have better access to information, so they can more readily and easily find out about volunteering opportunities. And they have very specific skills to offer. Accountants can volunteer to do tax work for nonprofits, for instance. “They can offer highly specialized services,” Cramer says. Another reason that explains the rise in volunteering among baby boomers: their propensity to have children later in life. One reason people volunteer, Cramer says, is because they have children in the home. “It’s not unexpected. Parents have an interest in organizations related to their children’s and social involvement. And baby boomers are more likely to have children in the home than the previous generation when they were the same age.” In fact, between 1989 and 2005, the percent of midlife adults with children in the home rose by 73%. More to the point, the agency reports that the surge of baby boomers will boost volunteering by older adults by 50% by the year 2020 and double the number of older adult volunteers by the year 2036. The sheer huge numbers of boomers seeking out volunteer opportunities presents enormous opportunity for nonprofits in need of more resources and manpower. But nonprofits also have to understand that what opportunities motivate boomers may be different than what drive older Americans, says Tess Scannell, director of Senior Corps. “Baby boomers want an opportunity that is well planned and has a clear impact,” says Scannell. “They don’t want to feel like they are wasting their time.” Specifically, those Americans born between 1946 and 1964 are often looking for higher-skill assignments. In the study put out by the CNCS, three kinds of activities seemed to appeal most to the boomers: 75% of them engaging in professional activities like managing people or projects continued volunteering the following year. Also popular were activities involving music or some type of performance and tutoring, mentoring and coaching. Scannell contrasts that attitude with the perspective of those members of the Greatest Generation, for instance, who often volunteer out of a more general sense of a duty and obligation. “The 70- and 80-year-olds had a different approach,” Scannell says. “If they were asked, they showed up. So this is a change for volunteer managers. If they want to retain baby boomers, they have to make it worth their while. Time is the commodity that baby boomers cherish. If they are spending time on something, they want to know it’s well used.” The reasons older adults may have for volunteering may be different than those of boomers, but studies show they’re no less involved in lending a helping hand: The volunteer rate for Americans ages 65 years and older jumped 64% between 1974 and 2005. Cramer attributes that rise to broad demographic shifts in the older age group. He notes that older Americans can feel free to chip in and volunteer in greater numbers because they’re healthier than Americans in the past. They’re also living longer and are more financially secure. Regardless of age, though, there are certain transgenerational reasons men and women decide to dedicate time to volunteering. What they’re often looking for is a way to stay active, engaged and needed. “People volunteer because they get personal benefits from it, like connections with others, social networking and being part of a movement,” Cramer says. “That sense that you’re doing good, that you’re a force for positive change.” Duane Zaremba of Mesa, Ariz., had never done much volunteering before he retired. The 62-year-old had worked for nearly 40 years at Chase bank and when he officially checked out of the working world in December 2005, he initially planned to take it easy. He wanted to relax, maybe travel a bit and do some work in the yard. But soon enough, as it has for others, the retired life proved kind of dull for Zaremba. “You’re home and you just feel like you’re not accomplishing stuff anymore,” he says. “I felt like my brain was turning to mush. I needed to do something to feel like I was contributing.” So Zaremba began looking for ways to help out in his community. He started serving lunches to the homeless at a local church. It was there that another volunteer told Zaremba about Experience Corps, a nonprofit that recruits tutors to mentor elementary school students struggling to learn to read. Zaremba was initially skeptical. Did he really have the patience to sit down and tutor kids? But he decided to give it a try. Beginning last September, he began volunteering at a local public elementary school. Five months later, and Zaremba is hooked. Every Monday and Wednesday morning, he heads to the school and sits down for a few hours with fourth graders, one-on-one, to walk through their assignments with them. One student he works with a lot is a 10-year-old named Oscar, who sometimes has trouble concentrating. But Zaremba sits down and, together, they work through the assignments. Recently, Oscar raised his hand in class to respond to some questions. The teacher later approached Zaremba and told him that Oscar had never before volunteered to contribute. “That made me feel good,” he says.

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retirement, SCORE, Service Corps of Retired Executives