These days the harvest is great, but the volunteers are ... no, they aren’t few, but many more are still needed. 

As employers cut more and more salaried positions in today’s tough economic times, a lot of schools, hospitals, dioceses, parishes and nonprofit organizations have increased their volunteer rosters. 

At some of those places, staff members are hoping to get more volunteers. And at some of those places, they are hoping and praying to get more volunteers. 

Don’t let this go to your head, but you may be an answer to those hopes and prayers. And, on the other hand, that place, that work and that population being served may be an answer to your prayers. 

Here are six keys that can help make that happen. 

Seek and ye shall find 

Talk about variety! You can go around the world with the Peace Corps (which welcomes 50-plus volunteers) or down the block with the Senior Corps in its foster grandparents, senior companion or retired and senior volunteer (RSVP) programs. (Many RSVP programs are affiliated with Catholic Charities, so check your local chapter.) 

You can work in your own parish on a committee or project; at the school; or as a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Legion of Mary, Knights of Columbus, Catholic Daughters of the Americas or other group. 

You can assist the local chapter of a national organization — such as the American Cancer Society or Red Cross — or a local, smaller agency that’s based in your area. 

You can ask family members and friends where they volunteer and what kind of work they do. 

Not a job, but a vocation 

Many seniors discover that, in a lot of ways, their volunteer work is a “vocation,” even if it’s only an hour or two a week. 

As you do your research, you may feel yourself being attracted to a particular work or ministry based on the following factors: 

  •  An issue that interests you (hunger, homelessness, literacy) or a population with whom you particularly identify (youths, unwed mothers, recovering alcoholics). 
  • Your skills, education and life experiences (marketing, motherhood, teaching, carpentry, law, health care, computer savvy). 
  •  The extent to which you are able to volunteer (depending, for example, on your health and your other commitments). 
  • The nudging of the Holy Spirit (no strong wind or tongues of fire, but a feeling of being drawn toward a particular place, population or position).

Look before you leap 

What first seems to be a match made in heaven can turn out to be a mistake. That’s less likely if, as you’re being “interviewed” for the position, you do a little interviewing yourself. Visit the place. Talk to the staff and other volunteers. See if there’s a written job description for what’s expected of you.  

Find out if there’s any training you need before you start volunteering. And don’t be surprised if an agency or parish tells you a criminal background check is necessary. 

All of this protects the agency, the population it serves and you. 

Keep an eye on boundaries 

An organization that treats its volunteers well doesn’t want you stepping outside the boundaries of your volunteer position. (“Give a warm welcome to the people coming to our soup kitchen and spend time visiting with them here. But never give any of them money or offer to give them a ride.”) 

And, on the other hand, a good organization doesn’t push you beyond what that volunteer position entails, and it certainly doesn’t use guilt to make you do more than you should do or want to do. (“I know you said two hours a week, but we really need all day on Saturdays from now on. If you don’t do that then all these poor little children will have to. ...”) 

Paying attention to boundaries also means you realize taking on too many responsibilities in your volunteer role quickly leads to bitterness and burnout.  

Volunteers with “messiah complexes” think it all depends on them. It doesn’t. The position of saving the world was filled and the job was completed almost 2,000 years ago. 

Know when to say when 

Yes, some volunteers are with an organization or group for many, many years, but those tend to be the exception. Most volunteers leave after a while for a number of good reasons. Personal circumstances change. The duties evolve into a different type of work. Favorite staff or fellow volunteers retire or move on. 

It’s good to remember that, just as the Holy Spirit led you to a particular place, he may be saying it’s time for you to try something else. Or to rest for a while. 

An attitude of gratitude 

Thank God you’re still able to help others. And if the day comes — when the day comes — and it seems you’re no longer able to help others because of your poor health, frailty or age, you can continue volunteering. You can voluntarily offer up those hardships as a prayer. The Lord knows, the Master of the Harvest knows, that that work is needed, too. 

Bill Dodds and his wife, Monica, are the editors of My Daily Visitor magazine and the founders of the Friends of St. John the Caregivers (www.FSJC.org), an all-volunteer international Catholic organization that promotes care for family caregivers.

On the Web

To learn more about Senior Corps and its programs, visit www.seniorcorps.gov.