Americans are a giving lot. The Great Recession curbed financial gifts for a while, but the numbers have been rising for three years and hit $306 billion last year. We gave an additional $171 billion worth of volunteer hours.
This penchant for generosity and helping one another is rooted in westward expansion during the early days of our nation. There was no government to solve problems on the frontier, no rich people to invest in infrastructure. If settlers wanted a church or a barn or a town they had to join hands and build one.
Certainly, people in other nations give generously too. But our unique history has helped make America the most charitable country on the planet. The French traveler Alexis De Tocqueville in the 1840s marveled at America’s many and varied “associations” formed to help others and for the public good.
Yet our giving is in a constant state of change. Not so long ago we gave primarily at the office and usually only to a large well-known organization like the Red Cross or United Way, or perhaps to a local place of worship. But the new rich in Silicon Valley began to change that model in the 1990s. They were self-made, not old money. They began to insist on results and accountability with charities. It was their money and they wanted metrics to show the mission was being fulfilled. They became philanthropreneurs looking to use their money not to make more money—but to solve specific problems around the globe.
At the same time, boomers began to contemplate retirement and how to fill all those empty hours. Volunteering sounded great. But boomers wanted nothing to do with stuffing envelopes, emptying bedpans and ladling soup. They wanted to use their experience to do something more meaningful; they wanted to feel the rewards of their gifts of time or money.
So today the philanthropic world has a whole new feel. Charities are closely vetted through organizations like charitynavigator.org, charitywatch.org, givewell.org, and goodintents.org. These sites rate a charity’s effectiveness and monitor expenses. If you are giving money, they are good places to begin.
Increasingly, though, retiring boomers seem to have more time to give than money to give—and they want it to count. Some 1.5 million nonprofits have formed to capitalize on boomer passions and special interests. Folks targeting their own personal mission have started many of these nonprofits.
After watching her daughter struggle with infertility for four years, Pamela Hirsch dug deep and helped pay for a surrogate mother, who delivered a healthy biological daughter. “I realized that without the ability to pay, a solution would not have been possible,” Hirsch says. “Treatments for infertility are costly and not covered by insurance.” To help others, she launched Baby Quest Foundation, a nonprofit that raises funds for those who cannot afford treatments like egg and sperm donation, in vitro fertilization, and gestational surrogacy.
The first Baby Quest child was born in March and two more are expected in November. “Every day I think what life would have been without being able to give our daughter the opportunity to be a mother,” Hirsch says. “That potential emptiness pushes me to do more to raise funds for those in the same position.”
For those who have no special mission near their heart, finding the right way to give back may require a little soul-searching. “Boomers need to strengthen their intuitive muscle,” says Sheree Franklin, a life coach in Chicago who helps clients find their direction. She suggests meditating on your core values and asking close friends for advice on what they believe those values might be—then using that knowledge to seek a fit.
Opportunities are wide-ranging and as targeted as you like. For as little as $25 you can help a Cambodian rice farmer buy seed through Kiva; or if you want to get your hands dirty you can help rebuild a house in a natural disaster zone through Habitat for Humanity. These are among the most well-known charities. To find others that may suit you visit volunteermatch.org or idealist.org.
To marry boomer’s desire for meaning and wanderlust, some of the most interesting giving back opportunities include exotic travel. “Voluntourism” exploded in the past 20 years as high school students began to use service trips to build their resume for college. Now retirees are hooking into the industry—not to pad their credentials but to do something good while seeing a part of the world they’d otherwise never visit.
The trend has given birth to a new reality TV show: Raw Travel, which debuts Oct. 5 on affiliate stations in 75% of the U.S. Executive producer and host Robert Rose showcases socially and environmentally aware travel, incorporating ecotourism and voluntourism. “I recently returned from eight weeks filming in Central America,” Rose says. “There were many older people and baby boomers traveling with a higher purpose—and for good reason. It is simply life changing.” Look here to see if Raw Travel will air in your area.
To help you find just the right experience check out online tools like Voluntourism.org, govoluntouring.com, i-to-i.com, and globalvolunteers.org. Here are just a few cool ideas of ways to volunteer, make a difference and enjoy the rewards:
- Big Cat Rescue Would you like to get close to a tiger, lion, leopard or cougar? It’s not for everyone, and that’s the whole idea. This Tampa, Fla., refuge is home to more than 100 big cats saved from the illegal exotic pet trade. “Volunteers do all of the animal care work,” says CEO Carole Baskin. “Twelve paid staff do the administrative work and manage volunteers. Even our two veterinarians are volunteers.” This keeps costs down and allows the volunteers to get the intimate experience they want with these big animals through a 12-week “internship.” Opportunities to work with animals abound, especially with healthy abandoned household pets headed for euthanasia. Through an organization like Adoptapet.com you can agree to foster care a cat or dog until an owner claims the animal. “We see lots of retirement age folks devoting some of their newly found free time fostering rescued pets,” says Dana Puglisi, marketing director at Adopt a Pet. They enjoy the companionship without the commitment of ownership. “There is nothing like saving a life,” says Jme Thomas, executive director of Motleyzoo.com, a rescue site. “Everyday that animal is going to be smiling at you.”
- Mercy Ships This organization owns and operates the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest charity hospital ship, which has been featured on 60 Minutes. The volunteer crew lives on board in a multicultural community of over 400 people from 45 nations. They include nurses and surgeons, but also teachers, cooks, writers, and housekeepers. The ship brings modern medicine and surgical procedures, for free, to impoverished parts of the world. The volunteers get to know patients, who receive life-changing and often life-saving surgeries. They also visit orphanages, prisons, explore the beaches, communities, and churches of the nation where the ship is docked. “It is a life-altering experience,” says Pauline Rick, Mercy Ships public relations coordinator. “One of our surgeons has changed his Harvard PhD trajectory due to serving with Mercy Ships. Others have returned home and studied to become nurses or maritime professionals because of their desire to return with specific skills.”
- Adventures in Preservation If you have an interest in architecture, old buildings and archaeology, you can explore these passions as a volunteer working to preserve the world’s heritage. This nonprofit brings volunteers to digs and landmark reclamation projects around the world. Boomers can contribute skills from surveying and engineering to carpentry and knowledge of the fine arts. They can also learn news skills, like decorative woodcarving or fresco painting. “Exploring and enjoying the surroundings and making a positive contribution are satisfying and potentially life changing,” says co-founder Jamie Donahoe. “The instant bonding that occurs within each group of jammers (volunteers) can create friendships that last a lifetime.” Working with conservation experts, volunteers have reclaimed historic buildings in seven different countries. Projects in store for next year are in the U.S., Italy, Slovenia, and Albania. Projects for 2015 are in the U.S., Ghana, Ecuador, and Ukraine.
Of course, this is just a sampling of what’s out there. The point is that there is something for just about everyone in today’s volunteer world, which still has much to offer those that simply want to organize a food drive at their place of worship or give at the office. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re looking for something a little farther off the chart, odds are it’s only a Google search away.