Volunteers could fill gaps left by Reagan budget cuts

The depth of the Reagan budget cuts may raise the status of America's unpaid professionals -- those who volunteer their time and services -- to new heights. The expected pinch of the cuts has already prompted a number of private and government agencies to sharply step up their courting and recruiting of volunteers.

Indeed, some experts say the prospect of the cuts has left some agencies, in fields ranging from the arts to human services, in a state of "panic" as to where they will find the funds and personnel to continue operations at all.

Most volunteer clearinghouse agencies report a surge in requests for volunteer help and say they are braced for a sharper increase in the weeks to come.

"Right now calls are coming in for receptionists and secretaries, positions maybe filled by CETA [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act] employees before," says Edward Van Arsdale of the Voluntary Action Center in Somerset, N.J., which recruits and refers volunteers to some 70 agencies in the area. "So far we haven't had a really big call because of the cutbacks, but we're certainly expecting it."

Veteran workers in the volunteer field stress that in times of fiscal crisis careful long-range planning as to how volunteers can best be absorbed is crucial. Unions and paid staff affected should be in on the planning, they add.

"The first thing people seem to think of is 'How will we ever get our typing done?'" notes Winifred Brown, director of the Mayor's Voluntary Action Center in New York City, an organization that channels volunteers to 2,000 private and government organizations.

"We encourage analyzing what the typist actually does. Often typing is only a fraction of the job," she says. "The volunteer, whose work should enrich the agency's services rather than replace paid staff, may be better equipped to take on some of those other duties. . . . In many organizations, especially government, promotional opportunities for clerical workers hinge on taking the next typing test, and they resent having a job taken away that uses their primary skill."

"We want to be sure that if voluntarism is expanded, it's done in an appropriate way," agrees Mary Louise Thomson of the Voluntary Action Center in Chicago. "The question is how to extend services by better use of manpower while protecting both the employee and the volunteer from exploitation."

Organizations intending to lean more on volunteers will also have to be much more flexible in how and when they use the added manpower. The traditional picture of "Lady Bountiful" devoting an afternoon to licking envelopes no longer applies. Today's daytime volunteer is more apt to be a student, retiree, woman in transition from homemaking to career, or someone disabled. New York City plans an entire conference at the end of April to delve into new ways to tap the skills of handicapped volunteers.

But the core of the volunteer network, the experts say, is now the professional working man and woman who can offer evening and weekend time.

"Being unemployed is no longer a synonym for being a volunteer," says Andy Hart of Denver's Mile High United Way Voluntary Action Center. "Many agencies are just beginning to see the light on the implications of who is now available and to find innovative ways to use them."

Many agencies using volunteers, for instance, are finding that management, accounting, and technical assistance help can do a great deal to improve the efficiency of manpower used and services offered.

Most experts say they think there is an ample supply of "people power" waiting to help with dollars and services when the need arises.

"Organizations such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill have grown dramatically in tough times because they're more needed and more people are aware of it," says Brian O'Connell, president of Independent Factor, a Washington-based coalition of some 300 groups in the volunteer field. "Times are tough, but my prediction is that individual giving will increase substantially -- though probably not enough to compensate for the losses [from the administration's budget cuts]."

Indeed, most predictions are that some federally funded arts and service agencies will fold.

"Those substantially dependent on government grants are going to feel a tremendous impact," observes Mr. O'Connell. "A lot of very local community arts groups formed in the last five years which have become heavily dependent on government funds probably aren't going to make it because they didn't have enough to start with."

"The question with us is whether volunteers would have any place to go," says Marta Vega of the Phelps Stokes Fund in New York, an agency which helps a variety of Chicano arts groups that relied heavily on volunteers before getting some federal funds in the last few years. "The Reagan budget cuts are going to force many of our organizations to close their doors."

"Generally arts organizations are going to be pressed into becoming very good business managers," comments Mrs. Joan Harris, president of the board of the Chicago Opera Theater which leans on Washington dollars for only about 2 percent of its budget. "Those with the larger budgets and the larger staffs will have to do a lot of cutting back."

Service and arts groups considered in the strongest position now are those which have a broad volunteer base and a tradition of putting volunteers to good use. The Voluntary Action Center in New York City, for instance, found it easiest during that city's financial crisis of the mid-70s to add volunteers to agencies already using them.

"We got no kickback of any kind in such cases," says Winifred Brown, "because the paid staff knew that their jobs weren't threatened."

By contrast, she says, some private voluntary agencies such as nursing homes, drug rehabilitation centers, and counseling and guidance organizations, which have traditionally raised funds to hire professional staffs and have kept volunteers from working in any service capacity, may face a tougher situation. "They suddenly begin to wonder if there's a way to involve volunteers when the money gets tight and they see these jobs going down the drain," she says, implying that by t he time the looking starts it may well be too late.

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