Retirement Weekly: Looking to volunteer for a nonprofit? Beware of these 4 red flags that may signal a bad match

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Ideally, retirees find fulfillment by matching their passion with a volunteer activity. They love the idea of bettering their community by harnessing skills that they’ve built over a lifetime. Plus, they get to meet people and socialize.

What can possibly go wrong?

In searching for the right volunteer position, they can stumble into a pit of frustration. Their boss can prove vexing. The stress can mount. And the work can prove underwhelming or unrewarding. 

To identify the right place to volunteer, do your due diligence. Beware of letting your enthusiasm overpower your discernment as you assess whether a particular opportunity meets your needs.

Read: What Jimmy Carter, 97, can teach us about retirement

“Retirees know how valuable their time is, probably better than most,” said Meg Moloney, chief operating officer at Points of Light, an Atlanta-based volunteer service organization. “So ask questions and do your research.”

She says that in many cases, a friend or acquaintance will ask a retiree to volunteer. Amid all the excitement (“This is such a wonderful agency that does amazing work!”) and flattery (“You’re perfect for this role!”), it’s easy to get carried away.

Instead, dig for specifics. Ask questions such as:

-What’s your role at the organization? How long have you been involved with it? How has it evolved during that time?

-To what extent do they support volunteers? Can you give examples?

-How many volunteers do they currently use? Can you put me in touch with a few of them?

Your friend may emphasize the surging demand for your expertise—and how the agency is under strain due to budget cuts, a decline in donors or other factors. Flush with guilt, you may agree on the spot to lend a hand.

“It’s better to research the organization first,” Moloney said. She suggests online tools such as GuideStar (for financial data) and Glassdoor (for employee reviews).

For the moment, set aside your eagerness to volunteer; instead, wear your detective hat. Look for four red flags that raise concerns:

1. “You’re on your own.” While larger organizations may employ a volunteer coordinator to oversee your efforts, nonprofits of any size should assign someone to introduce you around and define your role. But if you feel adrift from the outset, that’s a bad sign.

“Lack of responsiveness to your calls or emails can be a problem,” Moloney said. “Many nonprofits are short-staffed, so you have to take that into account. But they should still get back to you” fairly quickly to answer your questions.

2. “We try to stay safe, but it’s tough.” Retirees who volunteer are not immune from workplace injuries or illnesses. If you wind up operating in cramped quarters—or lifting heavy boxes—you may be exposed to risks that you didn’t initially realize.

“They should have ready information on their safety protocols, especially Covid protocols,” Moloney said. “They should be very familiar with them,” not reaching into a back drawer to find them.

3. “We’ll keep you busy.” The organization should describe what you will do and why it matters. Specificity is great, but even a general overview (“It can be chaotic here, but your three priorities are…”) is better than a vague, brush-aside comment (“Oh, don’t worry. Our volunteers always keep busy”).

“You want to determine what you will do doing and if the roles are of interest to you,” said Tobi Johnson, president of VolunteerPro, a global consulting firm that serves nonprofits.

4. “We’re in transition.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with an organization that’s undergoing a change in leadership. A new executive director can bring fresh ideas and a renewed sense of purpose to the team.

But if you spot signs of brewing turmoil, proceed with care. Examples include a restive board of directors (note any recent resignations) or a sudden spike in employee turnover.

“The board of directors has governance and fiduciary responsibility for the organization, so you will want to vet it,” Johnson said. “And during the interview process, ask to talk to other volunteers” to get their take on the organization’s internal dynamics.