The Year of Vacation From Volunteering

When I ask people, “How do you want to spend your time in retirement?” a common answer is “volunteering.” Most people who will read this will already be active volunteers. Some of you see retirement as an opportunity to give back even more. I find that admirable.

Volunteering is one of those activities, like golf or fishing, in which doing too much of it isn’t discussed very often. About this time last year, I noticed that every month for the prior eight years, I had committed to a 1/2 day meeting and at least one conference call for some kind of volunteer organization or another. It was as one of these commitments was wrapping up, and the opportunity to apply for a board position arose, that I realized how much I had come to dread monthly meetings and conference calls.

In the past, I would have told myself to get over it, and soldiered on, as if it was my sworn duty. But some personal challenges over the past 5 years have forced me to stop anytime I am uncomfortable and ask, “Did I bring this discomfort on myself? Is this something within my control?”

When it came to over-volunteering myself, the answer was “Yes” to both.

After more than thirty years of agreeing to nearly any role for which I was asked, I wondered what it would be like to have no ongoing volunteer commitments, at all. It was a scary thought. Specifically, the following questions arose:

  1. Would I feel guilty? How about selfish?
  2. Would karma kick me in the behind because I quit?
  3. Would I fall out of touch with the organizations I care about?
  4. Would I be bored?
  5. Would “they” (whoever “they” is) believe I was not loyal, reliable, or trustworthy?
  6. Would I fade into oblivion, forgotten on the sidelines as new volunteers arose to take my place? Could my ego handle not being in some kind of leadership position?

But also these:

  1. Might my work life improve with that much more time?
  2. Might my relationship with my (just-married) husband improve?
  3. Might I be happier overall?​

After kicking it around with a couple of friends and my husband Ken, I decided, for 2018, to take a volunteering vacation, or volun-cation. I started saying “no,” and I quit signing up.

Today I am reporting in a little over the halfway mark on my answers.

1. Guilty and selfish: Guilt is a waste of energy, I know, yet I still struggle with it. I am satisfied I have not entertained it for long this year. When I feel it creeping up (typically when I am about to be asked for my time and energy), I notice it, but politely say “no” and move on. I definitely do not feel selfish. It is really clear I needed this break.

2. Karma: So far so good. The curious thing would be if something horrible happens this year, would I really blame it on quitting volunteering? I don’t think so. Ergo, if nothing horrible happens, that has nothing to do with volunteering, either. Karma is karma.

3. Fall out of touch: It does feel like I am not as plugged-in. I don’t know as much about what’s going on at the organizational levels. I am now a simple member of these groups. On the one hand, I miss being “in the know.” But on the other, there’s something liberating about being blissfully ignorant.

4. Bored: Only in the sense that I now have loads of time I didn’t have before and I don’t always have something to do to fill it up. Sometimes I have to, gee, sit. Relax. Take a book by the pool on Saturday instead of going to a half-day meeting. I’m still figuring out how to spend my time, and sometimes that feels glorious.

5. What “They” Think: I don’t know. Most of the time, I don’t care. That’s progress.

6. Oblivion/Sidelines: I don’t think I’ll be forgotten after only one year. I will need to decide soon how long I want this to go on. Oblivion may be the price my ego has to pay.

7. Work life: Business is better this year than last. I have enjoyed spending more time writing and blogging. Those were the typical activities that got pushed aside when I had to volunteer. So far anyway, I would say my work life did improve.

8. Husband: We can both feel the difference in my time commitments. It feels more relaxed. Considering this is our first year being married, I view the volun-cation as a good choice in the relationship department.

9. Finally, above all – Happiness: Mostly yes. That is, I do miss my colleagues and volunteer buddies. I miss the interaction with smart, vibrant people pulling together to help a common cause. I did not expect to miss the “growth opportunities” that come from learning to negotiate and compromise in pursuing that common cause, but I do, sometimes.

In the next few months, I will have a decision to make about 2019. As of now, I’m not leaning one way or the other. Like a pendulum, I recognize I swung too far in one direction, and have now countered that with an extreme swing in the other. I want to learn what the right balance is, for me. This will be useful for my own retirement, and perhaps for those whose own retirements I am helping to plan.

But I am curious about you. Where are you in your volunteer career? Are you happy there? Is it the right balance for you? What changes, if any, do you see in your future with regard to volunteering? Please do share either privately with me or by public comment. Thanks!

Holly Donaldson

Holly Donaldson, CFP® runs an hourly and fee-for-service financial planning practice virtually from her Tampa Bay, Florida office. She also works with clients throughout the U.S. (except Texas) interested in retirement and tax planning advice without product sales or investment management. Holly is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch."

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