Extending a Hand, If Schedule Permits
A high-powered meeting this weekend will push a renewal of volunteerism
Question: What do 93 million Americans spend 20 billion hours doing every year? No, it's not watching TV. It's not taking leisure time. It's volunteering.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
More than any other society, Americans donate time and effort to churches, charities, or some of the other 1.4 million nonprofit groups in the US. It is this spirit that President Clinton, Gen. Colin Powell, and every living former president (except Ronald Reagan, who will be represented by Nancy Reagan) will celebrate and encourage in a forum that starts Sunday in Philadelphia.
But they face a challenge because the nature of America's volunteerism is changing.
In an era of dual-career families, many Americans can't find the time for intensive projects that often make the biggest difference. The change comes even as a shrinking government is asking social organizations to do more, making it difficult for charitable groups to enlist volunteers for the toughest work.
"What they're seeing today ... is more the short-term focus, in-out volunteer," says Peg Hendricks, director of Cornell University's coming conference on volunteerism. But "when you get to the one-on-one volunteering that can really change lives, the numbers really drop down," she says. "We are missing the ... beauty of voluntarism, which is the sense of ... touching an individual person's life."
Today's volunteers, "don't have time to go to the PTA meeting or League of Women Voters or Kiwanis," adds Robert Wuthnow, professor of sociology at Princeton University in New Jersey. "They don't want to get involved in something that will take over their life."
The reason? Government statistics say that today's adults are working longer hours. So, the time they spend volunteering is more for work-related and career-building organizations. And the hours they do spend on charitable projects tend to be more ad hoc and more focused on short-term goals.
This explains why some volunteer groups are booming while others struggle. For example: the National PTA, which requires a long-term commitment, has only about half the members it had 35 years ago.
But people are leaping to sign up for Habitat for Humanity's short-term mission program, which sends people abroad for two- to three-week home building programs. Last year, it had 2,000 applications for 1,400 spots.
Fortunately, there's hope. While the core group of working Americans seems unwilling or unable to make long-term commitments, retirees and young people are fairly bursting with volunteer spirit.
Between 1977 and 1991, for example, the percentage of high school students involved in charities or social-service groups shot up from 26 percent to 46 percent, according to a Gallup survey from 1992.
Many schools are starting to reap that gain. At Madison House in Charlottesville, Va., a social-service group, the number of University of Virginia students putting in at least an hour a week has jumped from 2,000 to 3,000 in the past decade. "It's not that the young people are suddenly more altruistic," says professor Wuthnow, who wrote about the issue in a 1996 book "Learning to Care."