Volunteerism in transition

By Todd Cohen

Volunteerism is big business in the U.S., and it faces big challenges.

In the 12 months ended September 2004, 64.5 million people volunteered, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That represents nearly one in three Americans ages 16 and over.

The average volunteer’s time was worth $17.55 an hour, or roughly $272 billion for all volunteers, according to Independent Sector.

But those numbers mask weaknesses in volunteerism, experts say.

A recent Urban Institute study found that while volunteers can improve services and reduce costs for charities and religious groups, those organizations generally are not fully geared to make the most of their volunteers.

That failure among nonprofits “limits their capacity to serve their stakeholders,” and stems in part from the belief they lack the resources to recruit, train and manage volunteers, says Jim Perry, professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

He cites a recent study that found 55 percent of charities employed paid development staff, but only 39 percent employed paid staff to coordinate volunteers, he says.

But he says the real problem may be a reluctance to rely on volunteers.

“It’s a lot messier than getting a donor to provide resources,” he says. “It creates a lot more variables for unpredictability.”

Corporate volunteerism

Corporations, which serve as a big source of volunteers, also have not fully embraced volunteerism, says Bradley Googins, executive director of The Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College.

While studies show employees, customers and investors are more loyal to companies that are good corporate citizens, Googins says, the challenges of a fiercely competitive global marketplace are clashing with the desire to engage employees in community volunteering.

“Companies are so hard-pressed in the competitive environment to see this as a top priority,” he says. “The notion of employee engagement is getting squeezed.”

What’s more, he says, the 20th-century idea of volunteerism is outdated in a society in which the “social contract is clearly broken.”

“Pensions are gone, health care is very much at risk,” he says. “And so employees are increasingly left to fend for themselves.”

Yet to succeed in the face of global competition and corporate scandals, companies will be forced to become better corporate citizens, a shift that will depend on helping employees plug into their communities.

“Employees are really the face of corporate citizenship,” he says.

Home Depot, for example, devotes a week each year for employees at all its stores to volunteer for community projects.

“You have to be authentic,” he says. “You are going to be held up to standards of who you say you are. That’s the world we’re really moving into.”

Changing role of volunteers

Perry says unpaid volunteerism, which replaced the informal volunteerism of “neighbor helping neighbor,” now is giving way to “stipended” volunteerism.

Habitat for Humanity, for example, has seen its housing production surge through the use of AmeriCorps volunteers who receive stipends and manage other Habitat volunteers who build affordable houses.

“People’s intentions to do good are not sufficient,” he says. “You have to have the organizational capacity.”

While that capacity still is lacking at many nonprofits, he says, a number of forces are encouraging volunteerism and making it more accessible

Volunteers, for example, now can go online to find opportunities to get involved, he says, making volunteerism easier for busy professionals or people who spend a lot of time on the road.

The recent wave of natural disasters also has generated interest from volunteers, as has a growing interest in learning about other cultures.

And groups like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation have been encouraging volunteerism as a way to get families to work together, or for nonprofits to engage different generations ranging from students to aging Baby Boomers and their parents.

Promoting volunteerism

Ami Dar, executive director of Action Without Borders, a New York City-based nonprofit that works to connect people, organizations and resources, says a lot more can be done to make it easier to volunteer.

“People still have to do a lot of work to find an opportunity,” says Dar, whose group’s website at idealist.org lists more than 10,000 volunteer opportunities. “It’s easier to buy a book or find an apartment.”

And while some people take it for granted they will volunteer, he says, others do not even think about it.

In 2006, he says, Action Without Borders plans to launch a major campaign to promote volunteerism and civic engagement.

Ads running in media like TV, movie theaters and billboards, he says, will direct people to locations online and in their neighborhoods where they can find volunteer opportunities and learn how to plug into them.

“We should be able to promote the whole idea of action and volunteerism and engagement,” Dar says.

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