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Volunteer skepticism – People pitch in less often

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With Al Gore and George W. Bush championing the cause of volunteerism in their presidential campaigns, The New York Times reports that volunteerism is driven by the convenience of volunteers and is failing to meet America’s most pressing social needs.

That’s the opinion of Sara Mosle, a volunteer and a former editor of The New York Times Magazine.

“’Compassionate conservatives’ would probably claim that I am the kind of ‘caring adult’ who can transform the lives of disadvantaged kids more effectively than any government program,” she says in the Times’ magazine on July 2. “I’m all for volunteering, but I would disagree.”

She acknowledges she’s had some positive impact on the lives of youngsters, but says she’s “not a very good volunteer.”

“To work, mentoring has to be performed consistently, over a sustained period of time and preferably one on one,” she says. “For the first couple of years, I saw my kids as often as twice a week. But now I’m lucky if I see them once a month, and I almost never see them individually. In their lives, I’m less a caring adult than a random one. And my failure is representative.”

Fifty-five percent of Americans say they volunteered in 1998, up 7 percent from 1995, but the increase “does little more than recover ground that was lost in the early 1990’s and represents just a 1 percent increase over 1989,” Mosle says, adding that the total number of hours that people are giving actually has declined.

“It’s a new trend,” Sara Melendez, president of Independent Sector, told Mosle. “People are volunteering, but when they do, it’s more of a one-shot deal – half a day one Saturday, instead of once a week for x number of weeks.”

Overall, Americans donated 400 million fewer hours in 1998 than they did in 1995, according to Independent Sector data.

Mosle also says that volunteering is inefficient, with most volunteers concentrated in affluent suburbs far from inner-cities where assistance is most needed.

“There is an extraordinary mismatch between the geographical locus of the need and the georgraphical locus of the giving,” Lester Salamon, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, told Mosle.

And partly because of the mismatch, she writes, “volunteering is also regressive. Far from alleviating the gap between rich and poor, it tends to aggravate it. That’ because people are most likely to give if they are asked to by someone who knows them or if they already have strong ties to an organization.”

An obvious reason for the decline in volunteering, she says, is that Americans are working harder.

“The rhetoric about volunteering hasn’t caught up with the reality of people’s live,” said Melendez of Independent Sector.

For the full text of this article, go to The New York Times.

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