How to Change the World with Your 401(k)

Some retirees use their savings to fulfill the dream of a lifetime.

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For most people, retirement means relaxing after decades in the workforce. But for Frank Peterson, it means dedicating himself to the cause of a lifetime.

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After Peterson visited his son, a Peace Corps volunteer, in Guatemala a decade ago, he was struck by the number of people who were unable to get treatment for common but serious ailments such as cleft lips and cervical cancer. “I thought I could help these people on a national scale instead of the one-on-one situations that my son was involved in,” says Peterson, now 70 and a resident of McLean, Va. So eight years ago he took an early retirement from his job as head of the Navy’s Hydrodynamics Department and dedicated his time, and his money, to starting up a nonprofit that connects people in need of medical care with volunteer doctors.

His organization, Partner for Surgery, now organizes about six medical visits a year to Guatemala’s rural areas, where doctors and nurses evaluate hundreds of people in need of medical care. Then, by training local community members, Peterson’s network helps connect those in need with volunteer surgical teams. Last year, they helped over 600 surgeries take place, along with 20,000 screenings for cervical dysplasia, which can be a precursor to cancer.

For example, babies with cleft lips need to monitored to ensure they get enough nutrition, since they often struggle to breastfeed. Older adults getting surgery often need assistance with transportation, housing, and returning to their homes after their operations. “We’re getting the patients to surgery who would never show up unless they had an organization like ours,” explains Peterson.

At first, Peterson and wife, Linda, funded Partner for Surgery entirely themselves. After Peterson retired from his job, Linda continued working as a teacher, which helped make it possible for the couple to contribute $120,000 over nine years. As the organization grew, friends, relatives, and small family foundations began donating as well. The fact that salaries and other expenses are lower in Guatemala, and that so many volunteers contribute, helps to control costs.

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For other baby boomers looking to fulfill a lifetime dream of giving back, Peterson’s experience offers these lessons:

Don’t expect any compensation. Peterson recommends making sure you can live on your current income before starting a nonprofit, which you shouldn’t expect to generate any income. (Peterson and his wife are full-time volunteers and have never taken salaries.) “We were not concerned about our financial security since we kept the organization small, did not commit funds we didn’t have, and leveraged what we had by getting others to put up their money, too,” says Peterson.

Secure other people’s help, too. Today, Peterson and his wife are no longer the biggest donors on an annual basis because contributions come in from friends, family members, and small foundations.

Embrace your new perspective. “The personal involvement has really changed our lives. It’s given us a totally different appreciation for what poverty means and particularly chronic poverty – what it means to have been a person from a family has never had opportunities,” says Peterson.

Stay flexible. At first, Partner for Surgery didn’t ask the people undergoing surgery to make any financial contributions. But Peterson learned that the recipients of medical care appreciated the service more if they contributed something, even a small donation of corn or beans, because it enabled them to maintain their pride.

[Visit the U.S. News Personal Finance site for more insight and money management tips.]

Involve family. Not only did Peterson’s son help inspire the nonprofit’s creation in the first place, but he continues to stay involved, and now serves on Partner for Surgery’s board.

Be prepared for the mission to take over your life. “The biggest problem we faced was the all-consuming nature of running your own nonprofit when there is no paid staff in the United States. It quickly goes from a part-time effort to something that is seven days a week, with no letup,” says Peterson. It’s not a typical retirement, but Peterson says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.