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With less time to give time, volunteers seek flexibility

By Sara SteindorfSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 1999



With her 60-hour work week and erratic travel schedule, Sarah Pacheco just couldn't fit in the time to volunteer.

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Then she heard about Boston Cares, a group that caters to busy professionals by offering flexible volunteer schedules with no fixed obligation in terms of total hours.

"You can volunteer in two-hour spurts," Ms. Pacheco says. "And they don't make you feel guilty for not committing a lot of time."

On a brink of the new century, volunteerism is undergoing a major shift.

A new study reveals that while a record 109 million Americans are volunteering - 14 percent more than in 1995 - they're doling out their valuable hours in ever-smaller portions. The average volunteer put in 3.5 hours a week last year, down nearly an hour from 1995, according to Independent Sector, a Washington research group. Total time given has actually dropped slightly over the same time period.

Sara Melendez, president of Independent Sector, cautions that it's too early to draw any conclusions from the numbers, especially regarding the impact on the kinds of volunteer projects that require large time commitments.

But she notes the shift is not unexpected. "We are seeing a new volunteering trend that mirrors the way Americans live nowadays: working and traveling more, and having to volunteer sporadically or through their workplace," Ms. Melendez says.

On the rise are flexible volunteering programs including corporate volunteering - using company time, with the boss's approval, to do good. And a brand of volunteering that's Web-directed, with Internet users surfing for projects that call for short-term, short-notice stints.

One pioneer in flexible volunteering is City Cares of America, Atlanta, the parent organization of Boston Cares. It is built on the premise that professionals want to volunteer but don't have time to commit to regular hours with a single agency.

Every month, City Cares sends out a schedule of one-time and long-term community-service projects with local organizations. Volunteers can sign up for as many, or as few, as they want.

"People work and travel on strange schedules, people have families where both parents work - they don't have time to say 'OK, I'm going to volunteer every other Saturday for the next18 weeks,' " says Mark Yerkes, executive director for Boston Cares.

City Cares has grown from three cities 10 years ago to 27 today. One branch, Chicago Cares, saw its volunteer roster swell to 5,081 this year, about three times its 1994 membership.

Online volunteering offers another outlet for flexible donations of time. Web volunteers not only do administrative tasks from home, such as data entry and online research, they can also interact with a company's clients.

Several years ago, for example, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard Co. launched a mentoring program where employees could communicate online with fifth through 12th graders in biweekly exchanges on subjects ranging from homework to career goals. The program has grown to serve 3,000 children and now is administered by a new nonprofit, the International Telementor Center at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo.

"It only takes six minutes to write an e-mail to a student, and the impact can he huge," says ITC Director David Neils. Plus, he adds, "people in remote areas, the handicapped, and those who work late have the chance to volunteer."

Another pioneer of the virtual-volunteer concept is VolunteerMatch.org, a two-year-old service that posts thousands of volunteer opportunities across the US, including those that can be done online.

"I wanted a service that would tell me what I could do tonight," says Jay Backstrand, founder of the site. "Why shouldn't I be able to volunteer someplace the same day if I have a couple of hours?"

Virtual volunteering accounted for about 1 million of the estimated 109 million Americans who volunteered in 1998, according to Independent Sector. "That may seem insignificant, but [in 1997] it was probably close to zero," says Melendez.

Meanwhile, as flexible volunteering makes it easier to shoehorn volunteer time into busy schedules, companies are warming to the idea of letting employees serve from the workplace.

Burger King, for example, allows employees to take two paid hours a week to volunteer. First Union National Bank permits employees to volunteer up to four hours per month during working hours on education-related projects. And Ottawa-based Cognos, an international software company, allows workers a full day of volunteerism a week (it's time without pay, though other incentives are offered).

"The idea is to let people who are ... stuck [in] a cubicle get out and bring new ideas and vitality back to the workplace," says Terry Newcombe, an employee and volunteer organizer at Cognos.

Some analysts question whether project-hopping might eliminate the continuity required in cases where volunteers work with individuals. Or cut into the training time that some jobs call for.

But others, like Melendez, think the trend creates a good challenge.

"It's going to cause a lot of volunteer organizations to be more time-efficient and creative as to how they tap into people, skills, values, and interests."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society