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Change Agent

Charitable works, NGOs, nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and ordinary people with great ideas on how to make a positive change in their communities and around the globe.

Nancy Burkhart used her years of business experience to create Earth Safe Finishes, which makes and sells nontoxic paints and varnishes. Her new Encore Career allows her to make a living while also helping to solve a social problem she cares about. (Courtesy of Diana Marcketta)

Encore Careers: It's never too late to help others

By Esha / 01.04.13

We speak with noted author Marci Alboher about her latest book titled The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Different in the Second Half of Life, which looks at a new trend – the Encore Career, or a career that begins often after 50 in the years when most folks are thinking about retirement, travel, and relaxation.

Why work more? While some are driven by their financial circumstances, many are are choosing to develop later careers to make social impact, try something different, or build a career out of a passion or hobby.

Alboher shares with us her insights on the Encore Career below:

What is the greatest hurdle for encore entrepreneurs? The fear of defeat, the fear of trying something new, the age factor, or something else?

Encore entrepreneurs aren’t all that different from social entrepreneurs at any age.

If they have an idea for a fix to a nagging social problem, they do what any innovator does. They tap whatever resources they have — their network, their personal or professional skills, access to capital (both human and financial).

Where they differ from younger social entrepreneurs is that they tend to have a kind of seasoning and self-awareness that only comes with age. By the time you hit mid-life, you know your strengths and where you’d be better off bringing in outside help. Funny that you mention fear of defeat. Most encore entrepreneurs have already weathered plenty of failure.

More common is the fear of inaction. The idea that if you don’t chase an opportunity and try to make it succeed, you’ll regret it.

Which encore entrepreneurs have really impressed you and why?

I’m impressed by so many of them. Consider Conchy Bretos, who used what she learned as Florida’s Secretary for Aging and Adult Services to start MIA Consulting, a for-profit consulting firm designed to help low-income elders age in their homes. Bretos figured out a way to improve the lives of Florida’s aged population while at the same time building a financially viable business.

Or Nancy Burkhart, who took her years of experience in crafting businesses to create Earth Safe Finishes, which manufactures and sells nontoxic paints and varnishes. Both women started their ventures to solve a problem they witnessed firsthand. And both chose a for-profit model that would allow them to make a living while also solving a social problem they cared about.

Do you feel that there is enough support for these encore entrepreneurs who are starting careers later in their lives? What resources can they turn to (aside from the book)?

I’m not completely sure that encore entrepreneurs need different kinds of support than younger social entrepreneurs. They turn to the same kinds of places as younger entrepreneurs with a social bent — sustainable MBA or MBA-like programs and social-venture boot camps, social-venture incubators, and mentors.

There are some programs springing up, like the Small Business Administration’s 50+ initiative, specifically catering to the challenges of older entrepreneurs (though not necessarily those with a social mission.)

What someone needs depends a lot on what kind of background they come from. Someone who has a track record of running successful businesses will need very different kinds of support than someone who’s new both to the social venture field and to entrepreneurship.

In either case, encore entrepreneurs should seek out ways to connect with like-minded folks in location-based communities (like this one) and through online communities (like Dowser!).

Why do you think the “do good” aspect is so key for many of these entrepreneurs? What common themes do you see in them?

Something definitely kicks in when you cross the threshold of a big birthday, like 50 or 60. Regardless of what you’ve done earlier in life, there is a sense that what you do with your remaining time should matter. And even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, you probably have a good sense of what part of the world’s troubles speaks to you most personally.

I see a few common threads. Legacy and the fate of future generations are common motivators. Which is why we see so many encore entrepreneurs interested in programs around youth — mentoring, foster care, education, are all popular areas. Improving the way health care is delivered and making life easier for our aging population and those that care for them are also big areas of interest for encore entrepreneurs. Many baby boomers have lived through serious health issues themselves or have had experience caring for a partner or aged parent. So it’s not surprising that those experiences are natural influences.

What do you want to achieve with (and your book) in the long run?

At, we envision a time when planning for your encore career is as commonplace as planning for a leisure-based retirement once was. When that happens, we will see all kinds of new offerings that help people transition into new kinds of work and service. Some of this is happening already.

Programs like ReServe, Executive Service Corps, and Encore Fellowships are helping people in mid-life and beyond use their talents to help social- sector organizations. National Service programs like the Peace Corps are seeking out the talents of experienced people. Even Teach for America, which built its reputation as the pathway for recent college graduates, is attracting people well into midlife who want to offer their talents to fix our broken schools. Higher education is focusing on life-long learning.

Even financial services firms are changing the way they talk about retirement planning, acknowledging that their clients are working even in what is still anachronistically called the “retirement years.” In time, we’ll see more sweeping changes.

Do you feel that we as a society do enough to support these folks? Or encourage entrepreneurship later in life?

Not yet, but I’m hopeful that the next generation of encore entrepreneurs will have many mentors to guide them. The best support often comes from people who have walked the walk themselves. So I expect that the current wave of encore entrepreneurs will step up and mentor those who are inspired to follow their lead. I also expect to see a lot of intergenerational mentorship, with older and younger social entrepreneurs working together on issues in ways that tap both the wisdom of age and the energy of youth.

This article originally appeared at

Maajid Nawaz (seen here in a 2006 file photo) grew up in Britain and became an Islamist extremist. But now he's reversed course and founded Khudi, which challenges extremist religious ideas and instead promotes democracy. (Matt Dunham/AP/File)

Former Islamist seeks to turn the tide of religious extremism in Pakistan

By Alex WhitingAlertNet / 01.03.13

In the late 1990s, British Pakistani Maajid Nawaz was helping to recruit Pakistani army officers to an extremist Islamist group – with a view to overthrowing the Pakistani government. Now he's using the tactics he learned as an Islamist to try to curb extremism in Pakistan

"There are, to use a phrase, transferrable skills," Nawaz, co-founder and chairman of the London-based counter-extremism think tank Quilliam Foundation, said in a recent telephone interview.

Now a man courted by the world's top political leaders and a TED speaker, Nawaz was once a top international recruiter for Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT), a group that seeks to create a Muslim superstate, a global caliphate.

It aims to oust governments by military coups, after first spreading its ideas among the military, intellectuals, and general population. Once in power, its aim is to pursue an aggressive policy of foreign invasion and expansion, and impose its own version of Islam as state law.

Nawaz set up HT cells in Britain, Denmark, and Egypt. In Pakistan, he targeted intellectuals, military officers, and even the Taliban, who at the time were not considered revolutionary enough for HT.

But his life changed in 2002, when he was jailed by the Egyptians. During his time in prison, his ideas were deeply challenged, and in the end he decided to leave HT.

Having played a significant role in bringing about a shift to extremism, he said he felt a responsibility to use his experience and knowledge to try to reverse that work.

"It's a very difficult thing to do, but when I first started this I thought if we don't do it, who the hell is going to?" Nawaz told AlertNet. "This opportunity only comes around once every so often when you've got someone who's got that experience and who knows the Islamist arguments and is able to put them forward and then critique them.

"Bit of a burden," he said with a laugh.

In 2010, he founded Khudi, the first social movement in Pakistan to challenge extremist religious ideas and instead promote democratic culture among the country's youths.

Its aim is to spread democratic values in every area of Pakistani life as its members become journalists, judges, politicians, and activists.

"It's a very grandiose and long-term ambition, but already we're beginning to see fruits," he said.

Tens of thousands follow Khudi on social media. They've organized national and international conferences, and local television station Express News TV is airing a series of debates on extremism.

Extremism in Pakistan exists not just in the Taliban strongholds in Pakistan's northwestern states bordering Afghanistan – where schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot for standing up for girls' education – but also in the country's heartland, Nawaz said.

"Our analysis is that Pakistani society has been affected by extremism to an unacceptable level," Nawaz said.

He cited the example of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab and a liberal politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, who was shot dead in January 2011 by his bodyguard for suggesting Pakistan's blasphemy law be reformed.

Taseer had angered many people because of his defence of a Christian woman who was sentenced to death on blasphemy charges. Lawyers hailed Taseer's killer as a hero, tossing rose petals at him after he was arrested. More than 500 lawyers offered to defend him for free.

"The way that the murderer was treated as a hero openly and brazenly, that's an indication," Nawaz said.

Just this month, Pakistan authorities in the southern city of Karachi were caught off guard by the shootings of polio vaccination workers, saying they had not expected attacks in areas so far from Taliban strongholds.

Signs of tolerance of the Taliban appear even when hotels are blown up and Pakistanis die, Nawaz said. "There's a side-stepping, there's 'oh that couldn't have been the Taliban because why would they kill other Muslims, it must be America trying to make the Taliban look bad.'

"We're a long way from people being able to name and shame the perpetrators, and we're even further away from people disassociating themselves from the aims," he added.

The idea for establishing Khudi as a social movement came from the Islamist way of organizing people.

Islamist groups radically changed public opinion in the Middle East by setting up social movements and sending members into every strata of society – journalism, engineering, medicine, law, politics – carrying the Islamists' ideas, Nawaz said. Arab socialism, which dominated public opinion in the 1950s and '60s, was completely obliterated by Islamism in the 1980 and '90s.

"So I thought why not set up a movement that mirrors that, but instead of Islamism, the democratic culture?"

Nawaz was born and brought up in the British coastal town of Southend. There he saw many of his close friends stabbed in racist attacks, and he and his brother were falsely arrested on suspicion of armed robbery after playing with a toy gun in the local park.

At the same time, atrocities were being committed against Muslims during the Bosnian war. Nawaz writes that this, coupled with the alienation and identity crisis he felt at home, was the ideal breeding ground for an angry young teenager seeking out a subculture. Aged 16, he joined HT.

After working for HT in Britain, Denmark, Egypt, and Pakistan, he said, he was hunted down by Egypt's state security, tortured, and imprisoned for four years, aged 24. While he was held in solitary confinement, he vowed to become a suicide bomber.

But, in a move that was to change his life, Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience.

The fact that an organization he believed to be a soft tool of colonialism – and therefore his enemy – was fighting for his rights, deeply moved him.

"I am, in part, the person I am today because of their decision to campaign for me," he writes in his autobiography, Radical

Amnesty's support helped him rehumanize.  “... instead of being fascinated with the afterlife and death, for the first time in many years I began to reconnect with life, and with humanity. This is not something you can teach, it is something you must live and feel," he writes.  

Discussions with his fellow inmates who challenged his ideology and encouraged him to study the Koran and Islamic theology, were also instrumental in changing his ideas.

He was released from prison in 2006, and decided to leave HT. That decision came at great personal cost – separation from his wife who was still part of HT.

He has since lunched with former US President George W. Bush, been summoned to brief British Prime Minister David Cameron, and met former British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Since establishing Khudi, he has received appeals from Somalis, Egyptians, and Iraqis to help them set up a Khudi equivalent in their countries. He also wants to set one up in Libya.

"The Arab uprisings when they happened gave us more of an impetus, because we saw that that's genuinely possible." And because the uprisings were sparked by young people who didn't have a social movement, they formed youth-based coalitions that were easy for the Islamists to hijack, and ultimately hijack their revolution, Nawaz said.

Nawaz says it will take 30 or 40 years for a new generation of people from Khudi to enter every part of Pakistani society and change people's values.

"It's an enormous mountain to climb ... What I want to do is see things in the long term, and climb properly."

This article originally appeared at AlertNet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A boy makes his own lemonade at a block party in Boston. Resolutions for 2013 to share more might including sharing tools, a car, your home, or hosting a block party to get to know your neighbors better. (Steven Harris/Staff/File)

9 ways to kick off a year of sharing in 2013

By Cat JohnsonShareable / 01.02.13

With 2013 here, New Year’s resolutions are being scribbled down by the dozens. Maybe your resolutions include a commitment to healthier eating or more family time, kicking a bad habit or volunteering at a local nonprofit. Whatever your pleasure, the beginning of a new year is a fresh start. It feels like pure potential; like anything is possible.

What better way to kick off the year than to commit to more sharing? Whether cars, meals, office space, childcare, time, skills, or your home, sharing, in its many forms, is an excellent way to build community, consume fewer resources, and support the sharing movement by putting your actions where your mind is.

To stir up some ideas and inspiration, we asked several leaders of sharing communities around the world to offer their thoughts on the best way to kick off a shareable 2013. Here’s what they came up with.

Benita Matofska - Founder of The People Who Share

Start acquiring only pre-loved goods. Do you really need new stuff that often falls apart within weeks? Why not swap or exchange the stuff you have but don't need to get the things that you do? And if you really need to buy, buy pre-loved (share the lifecycle of the product). It's much cheaper and you get so much more value for your hard-earned cash. I've been following this for almost two years now, and in two years I've saved over £35,000 doing just this. Can't say fairer than that! My favorite find? A 1975 remote control Doctor Who K9 robot I just bought for my son's 8th birthday. He says it's his “best present ever” and it cost less than half of a new remote control toy and didn't cost the earth either.

Adam Werbach - Founder of Yerdle

The new year is a time for decluttering your life. Go through your stuff and take the one-year challenge. If you haven't used something that you own in the last year, give it away or loan it on Yerdle.

Janelle Orsi - Sharing Lawyer

Set a bold example for sharing. Get bold about what you share and who you share with. Tell your neighbors you are open to lending your car, if anyone ever needs one. Tell your employer that you'd rather have your hours cut than to see one of your co-workers laid off. Offer to lend your favorite travel guitar to strangers you connect with online (such as through Yerdle). Let a friend of a friend of a friend stay on your couch for a week. Invite random strangers to stop by your house anytime to borrow a bicycle pump. These are bold and powerful steps, but they exemplify what we all need to do to survive and thrive in very challenging times.

Antonin Leonard - Founder of Ouishare

I would say focus on people. Try to bring value to those people who already like you. Show them that you care about them. People are tired with online stuff, so find a way to make them interact in a meaningful way offline. And find young people who are very knowledgeable about social media and give them the keys of the house. That would be my advice.

Michel Bauwens - Founder of the P2P Foundation

The big priority is to create sustainable and ethical livelihoods that allow people to live from their productive passions, in pursuits that do not harm the planet. It is very important to do this not only with the classic ways of proprietary platforms but also through new forms of ethical market entities that are sharing- and commons-friendly and respect the autonomy of the contributors. I see the creation of contributory value systems that generate a flow of wealth to all citizens to be one of the big priorities. We have to step away from unsustainable profit-maximizing models to profit-making systems that are in the service of social goals.

Darren Sharp - Editor of Shareable Australia

My #1 tip to start the new year is to organize a street party so you can get to know your neighbors and start building a sharing community at the local level. Think about how to share surplus fruit and vegetables or perhaps create a tool, toy, or book lending library on your street. Apart from being able to have access to healthy produce like lemons etc. all year round (because most people produce more than they consume) and tools like power drills that are rarely used, you'll also strengthen social bonds, improve street security, and probably have fun along the way too.

Daniel Bartel - Founder of KoKonsum

People can organize KoKonsum Meetups in their local towns to connect the p2p communities and invite new people to join this exciting movement. Collecting moments, not things, is also very important to keep in mind to start a great 2013 – the year of sharing!

Adam Berk - Founder of Neigh*borrow and Shared Squared

Try one sharing service over the holiday season (like my parents made me try brussel sprouts). The opportunities are more and more niche and provide unintended benefits. I recently used Not only did I make a few bucks to spend on my own pooch, but we had a great time caring for a dog that would have otherwise spent time in a kennel. Plus we made a new friend in the dog's owner and introduced her to the virtues of similar p2p democratized platforms.

That said, without getting back to the pedantics... crash diets do not work. I would rather challenge the founders to solve one problem in the space, than to challenge the consumers to use the services. If the consumers need a commitment device, or a constant challenge, it means the founders (myself included) are not doing a good enough job of making the value proposition compelling enough.

Neal Gorenflo - Publisher of Shareable

If you want to change your life and community dramatically for the better, start a sharing group where everyone is committed to helping each contribute to the common good. The Henry James quote comes to mind, "True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one's self, but the point is not only to get out – you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand."

Form a group where everyone helps each other with that thing they can't live without doing, the absorbing errand. And keep at it for the long haul; you won't see the big benefits until at least year. You'll be surprised by how alive you'll become, how much you can do, and how easy it will be to accomplish the seemingly impossible for your community.

This article was originally published by Shareable, a nonprofit online magazine that tells the story of how sharing can promote the common good.

A naturalist with the Audubon Society watches a brushfire set to eliminate buckthorn, an invasive species, to make room for native prairie plants at the Somme Prairie Grove in Northbrook, Ill. In the Midwest individuals are joining together to return fields, and even lawns, to tall prairie grasses, which require low maintenance and attract wildlife. (Andrew Stern/Reuters/File)

Restoring US native prairies, acre by acre, yard by yard

By Rebecca KesslerYale Environment 360 / 12.31.12

David Read is a big guy, six-foot-two, but the grass behind him inches above the crown of his khaki fisherman’s hat. He gestures off toward his house across a swishing, dancing expanse of stems, leaves, and early-autumn wildflowers, and smiles. “We wanted to sit on our back porch and watch grass swaying in the wind,” he says. Which is exactly what it’s doing this September day, finally.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1990s when he and his wife, Alisande, bought this property, 38 acres in exurban Dexter, Mich., it was fallow farmland slowly succumbing to invasive shrubs. In 2003, after retiring, they set about restoring 11 acres of it to native prairie.

Read has done most of the work himself, at times putting in 20 hours a week or more lopping and herbiciding weedy brush, as well as seeding, mowing, and burning. He estimates they’ve spent nearly $15,000 on seed, equipment, herbicide, and some outside help. He might be a little nuts, Read concedes, but if so, he has a lot of company throughout the US Midwest and Great Plains.

Prior to settlement by Europeans, prairie blanketed an enormous swath of central North America, from Canada south to Texas, and from Indiana west to Colorado — nearly 600,000 square miles of grassland all told. This complex ecosystem was home to a diverse and teeming web of life, including now-tattered bison populations. Farming and development have reduced much of this iconic American landscape, particularly in the wetter eastern areas. There, tall-grass prairie, a habitat dominated by grasses that can grow eight feet high, now occupies less than 1 percent of its former range, putting it among the world’s most endangered ecosystems, according to the US National Park Service. In the central prairie zone, so called “mixed-grass” ecosystems have suffered similar losses, while in the drier, less populous West, short-grass prairies have fared better.

Government agencies and conservation groups, aided by volunteers, have undertaken numerous restoration projects across US and Canadian prairieland, some of them thousands of acres in scale. In recent years a cadre of private citizens has joined in, restoring prairie to their own properties, from city yards up to 100 acres or more around rural homes and farms. In some cases they’ve re-created prairie where it never was before — on land that was originally forest or wetlands before settlers plowed it for crops.

The hub of this do-it-yourself restoration activity is Iowa, southwestern Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and Minnesota, says Daryl Smith, director of the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. That’s probably because the region’s native prairie is so precious. Iowa’s, for instance, is down to 1/10th of 1 percent of its original extent.

Federal, state, and local programs offer financial and technical assistance, particularly for larger private projects on agricultural land. Conservation groups also offer some help. And a cottage industry of consultants, contractors, and native-plant nurseries has arisen for landowners who can’t do it all themselves. With so many players involved, no one seems to have a bird’s-eye view of just how much prairie is being restored on private land. By all accounts, however, the trend is growing, even if it may be all but impossible to quantify.

“I’ve been in this business since the early ‘70s, and there’s definitely been increasing numbers each year of prairie plantings,” Smith says. “We just haven’t kept a record of it."

As David Read wrote in an essay, “Prairie restoration is not for wimps!” it can be labor-intensive and technically challenging. People are educating themselves on the intricacies of grassland ecology, planting genetically modified “Roundup Ready” crops so they can blitz the soil clear of invasive species’ seed before sowing prairie plants, and bringing in heavy equipment to drill, till, spray, and seed. They are setting fire to their land to mimic nature’s way of keeping trees out and replenishing soil nutrients. In some places, they are banding together to swap work on one another’s properties, which one Wisconsin prairie buff likened to the barn raisings of years past.

“It definitely takes a combination of expertise in how to go about doing it and an investment up front either in money or in time,” says Chris Kirkpatrick, executive director of The Prairie Enthusiasts. “It’s a lot of doing things at the right time in the right order.” The 1,200-member group has 11 chapters in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota, up from five a decade ago. The work diminishes after a few years as the new prairie becomes established, Kirkpatrick says. Compared to lawn, prairie is cheaper in the long run, takes less work, and consumes no fertilizer and less water and fossil fuel for mowing, he says.

Folks who prefer that others do the heavy lifting can hire design, preparation, seeding, and maintenance for an acre of prairie for between $2,200 and $5,000, says Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisc. Diboll, an eminent advocate of native-plant gardening, says he has completed a few projects exceeding $100,000.

The payoff is the reappearance of native wildlife in places that for decades could not support it. That is abundantly obvious on the Reads’ property, where the shimmering trill of thousands of insects nearly drowns out the tidal roar of traffic from nearby I-94. Read says coyotes, foxes, deer, raccoons, skunks, possums, rabbits, owls, hawks, and numerous other birds are regular visitors, as are decidedly nonnative feral cats. A couple summers ago they had an explosion of enormous dragonflies that would cruise just above the grasses. “You could tell when they got outside the prairie,” he says, “they’d turn around and come back again.”

“We say build it and they will come,” says Mark Sargent, who runs a Michigan Department of Natural Resources program that helps landowners restore prairie and other native habitat to encourage vulnerable grassland and game bird species. That program has helped restore some 40,000 acres in the past decade, according to Sargent, “a lot” of it prairie. Twelve years ago, he and his wife began restoring prairie and wetlands on their 53 acres outside of Charlotte, Mich., and he says the difference in birdlife is striking. For the first two years, he says he would flush an average of one game bird every three times he went out hunting. Now it’s five every time.

Bigger prairies obviously offer more wildlife habitat, and connected ones allow species to spread over larger territories, preventing gene-pool stagnation, Sargent and other experts say. But even small patches count as pocket refuges for native wildlife that may have few alternatives.

In the Water Hill neighborhood of Ann Arbor, Mich., a number of residents have turned their city lots into prairie. Thirteen years ago Karen Sharp bought a house here, with a wild scraggle of vegetation shielding the front porch. The former owner returns occasionally to do carefully controlled burns of the little prairie, squeezed in between all the old wooden houses. “It looks really freaky. Cars will stop,” she says. “It’s black, charred front lawn. And it smells. It smells charred for a week or more. It really puts you off.”

The plants grow back quickly, though, and she says she has wildflowers with little effort and no water at the height of the summer when many of her neighbors’ yards are brown. “I love the privacy. I love the insects and the birds, and I love the flowers. And I love seeing how it changes every year,” she says.

In ecologically minded places like Ann Arbor, prairies have gained a measure of acceptance, but elsewhere would-be prairie planters have had to battle city nuisance codes, fines, and neighbors that regard their projects as weedy eyesores. There’s also the question of longevity. Most prairies will always require some maintenance to keep out trees, brush, and invasive species, which subsequent owners may or may not keep up, experts say.

There have already been casualties, according to Roger Anderson, a plant ecologist and professor emeritus at Illinois State University. He’s seen a few undone in real estate transactions or, in the case of one 25-year-old restoration on school property with over 100 native plant species, by a new school principal who just didn’t get it.

There are larger market forces at play, too. With grain prices skyrocketing because of the demand for ethanol, farmers have been plowing under native grasses they planted just a few years earlier with help from the US Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), according to Smith of the Tallgrass Prairie Center and other experts. CRP staff estimate that 11.6 million acres of land currently enrolled in the program in 14 prairie states have been planted primarily with native grasses. It would be a stretch to call many of these projects full prairie restorations, especially since landowners are only bound to keep enrolled lands out of production for contract periods of 10 or 15 years. Nevertheless, they do add a great deal of wildlife habitat, and the loss of it hurts, Smith says.

Lawn may long be king, but it is surrendering some ground as people increasingly welcome the helter-skelter beauty of prairie around homes and buildings, says Diboll, who remembers locals referring to his nursery as the “weed farm” in the 1980s. “It’s like any social-change event,” he says. “It’s a change in attitudes and styles, and those things take time.”

Rebecca Kessler is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in Providence, R.I. A former senior editor at Natural History, her work has been published by, Conservation, Discover, Natural History, ScienceNOW, ScienceInsider, and Environmental Health Perspectives. She has previously written for Yale Environment 360 about the fatal impact fishing gear is having on whales in the North Atlantic.

This article originally appeared at Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Students eat during a supplemental feeding program at a day care center in Manila, the Philippines. The new year should mark new efforts to improve the quality of the world's food supply, say Danielle Nierenberg and Ellen Gustafson, the co-founders of Food Tank. (Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters/File)

13 resolutions to improve the world's food supply in 2013

By Danielle Nierenberg and Ellen GustafsonFood Tank / 12.20.12

As we start 2013, many people will be thinking about plans and promises to improve their diet and health.

But we think a broader collection of farmers, policymakers, and eaters need new, bigger resolutions for fixing the food system – real changes with long-term impacts in fields, boardrooms, and on plates all over the world.

Here are13 resolutions that the world can’t afford to break with nearly 1 billion people still hungry and more than 1 billion others suffering from the effects of being overweight and obese. We have the tools – let’s use them in 2013!

Growing in cities: Food production doesn’t only happen in fields or factories. Nearly 1 billion people worldwide produce food in cities. In Kibera, Kenya, the largest slum in Africa, farmers are growing seeds of indigenous vegetables and selling them to rural farmers. At Bell Book & Candle restaurant in New York, customers are served rosemary, cherry tomatoes, romaine, and other produce grown from the restaurant’s aeroponic rooftop garden.
Creating better access: People’s Grocery in Oakland, Calif., and Fresh Moves in Chicago bring mobile grocery stores to food deserts, giving low-income consumers opportunities to make healthy food choices. Instead of chips and soda, they provide customers with affordable organic produce, not typically available in their communities.
Eaters demanding healthier food: Food writer Michael Pollan advises not to eat anything that your grandparents wouldn’t recognize. Try eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole foods without preservatives and other additives.
Cooking more: Home economics classes have declined in schools in the United Kingdom and the United States. and young people lack basic cooking skills. Top Chefs Jamie Oliver, Alice Waters, and Bill Telepan are working with schools to teach kids how to cook healthy, nutritious foods.
Creating conviviality: According to the Hartman Group, nearly half of all adults in the US eat meals alone. Sharing a meal with family and friends can foster community and conversation. Recent studies suggest that children who eat meals with their families are typically happier and more stable than those who do not.
Focus on vegetables: Nearly 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies worldwide, leading to poor development. The World Vegetable Center, however, is helping farmers grow high-value, nutrient-rich vegetables in Africa and Asia, improving health and increasing incomes.
Preventing waste:  Roughly one-third of all food is wasted – in fields, during transport, in storage, and in homes. But there are easy, inexpensive ways to prevent waste. Initiatives like Love Food, Hate Waste offer consumers tips about portion control and recipes for leftovers, while farmers in Bolivia are using solar-powered driers to preserve foods.
Engaging youths: Making farming both intellectually and economically stimulating will help make the food system an attractive career option for youths. Across sub-Saharan Africa, cell phones and the internet are connecting farmers to information about weather and markets. In the US. Food Corps is teaching students how to grow and cook food, preparing them for a lifetime of healthy eating.
Protecting workers: Farm and food workers across the world are fighting for better pay and working conditions. In Zimbabwe, the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe protects laborers from abuse. In the US, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers successfully persuaded Trader Joe’s and Chipotle to pay the premium of a penny-per-pound to Florida tomato pickers.
Acknowledging the importance of farmers: Farmers aren’t just farmers, they’re business-women and men, stewards of the land, and educators, sharing knowledge in their communities. Slow Food International works with farmers all over the world, helping recognize their importance to preserve biodiversity and culture.

Recognizing the role of governments:  Nations must implement policies that give everyone access to safe, affordable, healthy food. In Ghana and Brazil, government action, including national school-feeding programs and increased support for sustainable agricultural production greatly reduced the number of hungry people.

Changing the metrics: Governments, NGOs, and funders have focused on increasing production and improving yields, rather than improving nutrition and protecting the environment. Changing the metrics, and focusing more on quality, will improve public and environmental health, and livelihoods.
Fixing the broken food system: Agriculture can be the solution to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, including unemployment, obesity, and climate change. These innovations simply need more research, more investment, and ultimately more funding.
• Danielle Nierenberg and Ellen Gustafson are the co-founders of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank ( Danielle is based in Chicago, Ill., and Ellen is based in San Diego, Calif.

A man cuts firewood at his home in Bountiful, Utah, Dec. 10, 2012. Environmental groups and state governments are urging people to not transport firewood long distances because it may spread insect pests or diseases. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Nonprofits' message: Keep firewood close to home

By Cathryn J. PrinceContributor / 12.19.12

What munches on wood in Pennsylvania should stay in Pennsylvania. Likewise what burrows in Oregon should stay in Oregon.

Transporting firewood across state lines can spread insects and diseases, thereby wiping out swaths of forests. Because this can cause considerable economic and environmental damage, The Nature Conservancy oversees a "Don’t Move Firewood" website. The site, which gives state-by-state information, encourages people to buy locally harvested wood.

“We absolutely see that the longer there is a presence of a "Don’t Move Firewood" campaign in a state the more the public becomes aware. States without ‘Don’t Move’ just don’t get it,” says Lee Greenwood, coalitions and network manager for The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit group that works around the world to protect ecologically important land and water.

The "Don't Move" site grew from an effort called the Continental Dialogue on Non-Native Forest Insects and Diseases, a loose-knit group of organizations and individuals working to keep ecological invaders at bay.

While The Nature Conservancy owns the site, other nonprofit and government organizations are involved. They include the American Forest Foundation, the National Association of State Foresters, the Society of American Foresters, and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Native trees can defend themselves against native insects and diseases. But trouble ensues when non-native insects and diseases show up, hitching a ride on firewood transported from elsewhere.

"That’s What Tree Said" and "Tree shirts" are available for purchase on the "Don't Move" site – a humorous way to raise awareness about this issue.

“If you lived in New England 100 years ago, you’d lie awake worrying about gypsy moths. Now South Carolina worries about them. Something like this spreads quickly,” Ms. Greenwood says.

The leaf-munching Asian longhorned beetle is one of biggest threats to New England’s maple trees, threatening the fall foliage season. Restaurants, hotels, farm stands, and maple syrup distributors count on the annual tourism: Leaf peepers account for nearly $300 million in annual revenue in Vermont alone, according to the state's tourism and marketing department.

In Oregon the more than 700 licensed Christmas tree growers produce about 8 million trees a year. This year slugs are hitching rides to Hawaii on these Christmas trees. As a result, nearly half of the trees shipped to Hawaii are in quarantine.

In Pennsylvania, environmental officials have thus far contained the Asian longhorned beetle. But many other fast-moving pathogens and insects lurk, says Sven-Erik Spichiger, manager for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s entomology program.

“Eighty percent of Pennsylvania’s forests are oak. If a fast-moving pathogen or insect threatened them, well, it really staggers the mind to think about it,” Mr. Spichiger says. Sap beetles, which carry oak wilt, are one such fast-moving threat.

That’s why signs on Pennsylvania state parks tell campers not to bring in their own firewood.

Some states, such as Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire, simply advise against moving firewood while New York, Maine, and Massachusetts all prohibit importing wood from other states, or long-distance movement within their state. People are encouraged to check the "Don't Move" site to see the rules for their state.

How far is too far to move firewood? Generally 50 miles is too far, and 10 miles or less is best, according to “Don’t Move Firewood.” People are advised to check the website’s interactive state-by-state map.

In addition, “woody debris from storms is also a concern,” Spichiger says. It’s not a good idea to give away wood from fallen branches and trees, or leave it curbside for passersby. The final destination for the wood is unknown. However, it is okay to use such wood as mulch or for one’s own woodstove or fire pit.

“All it takes is one piece of wood,” Spichiger says, for a pest to infest a new area.

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Student gather on the first day of school at Wyandotte Elementary School near Lafayette, Ind., in 2011. Wyandotte is one of many US schools that have made cutting energy use a priority. In Richardsville, Ky., one elementary school is more than 'net zero': It sells about $2,000 in electricity each month back to the local utility. (Michael Heinz/The Journal & Courier/AP/File)

How renewable energy is rescuing US schools from budget cuts

By Erin L. McCoyYES! Magazine / 12.18.12

As the new Richardsville Elementary School rose from its foundations on a rural road north of Bowling Green, Ky., fourth-grader Colton Hendrick was watching closely.

He would climb to the top of the playground equipment across the street and watch construction crews hauling in bamboo flooring and solar panels.

“He wants to be an architect some day,” recalled Manesha Ford, elementary curriculum coordinator and leader of the school’s energy team. “He would sit and draw, draw all the different aspects.”

But Richardsville Elementary would not only capture Hendrick’s imagination—it would come to inspire his classmates and school districts around the world. When Richardsville opened its doors in fall 2010, it was the first “net zero” school in the nation, meaning that the school produces more energy on-site than it uses in a year.

Solar tubes piping sunlight directly into classrooms eliminate much of the school’s demand for electric light, while a combination of geothermal and solar power cut down on the rest of the energy bill. Concrete floors treated with a soy-based stain don’t need buffing. The kitchen, which in most schools contributes to 20 percent of the energy bill, houses a combi-oven that cooks healthier meals and eliminates frying. This means an exhaust fan doesn’t pipe the school’s temperature-controlled air to the outdoors all day long. Meanwhile, “green screens” in the front hall track the school’s energy usage so kids can see the impact of turning off a light in real time.

These and other innovations make Richardsville better than net zero. It actually earns about $2,000 a month selling excess energy to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

But building a green school isn’t enough, according to architect Philip C. Gayhart, principal in the architecture firm Sherman Carter Barnhart, which built Richardsville and has helped the Warren County School District achieve Energy Star ratings for 17 of its 24 schools.

Three factors are essential to making a green school work: First, you need the participation of the community and the local power company; second, you can’t forget that a school is a dynamic learning environment; and third, you need to speak the language of money.

Since the economic recession began in 2008, school districts have suffered. Local tax bases were shaken as property values plummeted, and states have cut back on funding to districts, which were pushed to cut funds wherever they were able. Addressing energy use made a lot of financial sense.

Few states have been harder hit than Arizona, where the 21.8 percent decrease in per-pupil spending was the highest in the nation.

Sue Pierce, director of facility planning and energy with the Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix, watched as teacher positions were cut, furlough days were scheduled, and $6 million in annual facilities funding disappeared.

“We saw that energy was really an area where we could perhaps save money by simply changing behavior,” Pierce said. “I approached the superintendent and asked permission to develop a program.”

The district’s new energy policy aimed to cut energy consumption district-wide by 10 percent in the first year and 40 percent over the next five years. As part of the program, Pierce began to distribute monthly reports on energy usage, which included every school in the district.

Some schools took to the program more quickly than others.

“Just by changing behaviors, they were showing 10 and 15 percent reduction the first or second month,” she said. The reports then fueled a competition between schools, and by the end of the first year, energy use had been cut 15 percent district-wide.

Since that time, the district has hosted a pilot program that, for the first time, demonstrated the feasibility of geothermal power in Arizona. Another pilot used smart water sensors to cut outdoor water use, and was so successful that the cost of the sensors was recouped in less than three months. The district even won funding to build two “green schoolhouses.”

Including grants the district has won, Pierce concludes the district has saved more than $15 million.

And while the district’s commitment to environmental consciousness has never been stronger, Pierce thinks that broaching the issue as a financial concern, rather than an environmental one, was the smartest approach.

The school district initially adopted the changes “as a way to save money, to save jobs for teachers,” she said. “What started out as a way to save money for the district—and it has—has evolved into a commitment to sustainability.”

While Washington Elementary School District and many others like it were just kicking off their energy programs in 2008, Richardsville Elementary and the rest of the Warren County School District were already five years ahead of the game.

The district had kicked off its district-wide energy campaign in 2003 under the direction of a forward-thinking superintendent, according to district Public Relations Coordinator Joanie Hendricks. The district was growing by about 400 students per year, and construction projects seemed to be always on the agenda.

So Warren County became one of the first districts in Kentucky to hire an energy manager and was able to save $560,499 in the first year by making small changes.

That first year of savings inspired the ambitious plans that came next, Hendrick said. “When you save half a million dollars in just changing your mindset, it just becomes a simple idea.”

Since 2003, the district has offset more than $7 million in energy costs. That equates to 45 teaching positions. It’s a number that really speaks to people.

“It makes you think twice when you’re going out the door to turn around and turn the light switch off,” Hendrick said, “when you know that could save somebody’s job.”

By the time Warren County decided to focus on greener schools, the architects at Sherman Carter Barnhart had been incorporating newer and greener materials in their plans for years.

“The perception is—and it’s not all wrong—is that it’s more costly, and we think if it’s done correctly it’s not really more costly,” Gayhart said. “I think the real ‘green’ is the dollars you can save the client in the life of the building. That’s the legacy you want.”

In 2005, Alvaton Elementary in Warren County opened using 36 kBtus of energy per square foot annually. That’s less than half the national average for schools, which is 73 kBtus. A few years later, Plano Elementary was using 28 kBtus, and today, Richardsville and two net zero-ready schools in the district use only 18 kBtus per square foot.

Net zero-ready schools have everything a net zero school has, minus the solar panels, which Richardsville was able to afford with the help of federal stimulus grants that have since run dry. Bardstown City Schools Finance Director Pat Hagan said although his district is implementing energy-saving measures, the up-front cost of solar doesn’t make financial sense right now.

Bardstown, situated in north central Kentucky, has two schools with geothermal systems.

“They’re a little more expensive to put in but you get your money back pretty quickly,” Hagan said.

Still, all options are on the table for a new school in the planning stages for Bardstown, which expects to see a bid from Sherman Carter Barnhart.

“When they built [Bardstown] High School in ’59 I don’t think anybody thought about energy at all,” Hagan said. “Nobody thought about it even from a cost or environmental view. Now, that’s the first two things you ask.”

For the next generation, this outlook may become a way of life. The schools described in this article have all integrated environmental and sustainability components into their curriculums, and students have adopted these issues passionately.

“For the students, it’s the learning opportunity” said Ford, leader of Richardsville’s energy team. “It’s something that’s going to be a part of their life for a long time, so we’re teaching them and we’re having them become the teachers.”

That energy team leads visitors from schools around the world on tours of Richardsville, and has audited just about every appliance in the building.

“They’ll leave a note that says, ‘Mrs. Jones, you have a cell phone charger plugged in, and you’re not using it. That’s going to cost us $5 a week,’” Joanie Hendricks laughed, “and you know, there’s nothing more powerful than getting a note from a kid.”

• Erin L. McCoy wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Erin worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer in Kentucky for almost two years. She is now a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in education, environment, cultural issues, and travel, informed by her time teaching English in Malaysia and other travels. Contact her at elmccoy [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter @ErinLMcCoy.

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Last year FarmVille players could receive a an item for their online game world with a contribution of $5 or more to the World Food Programme in a promotion sponsored by Pizza Hut. This month players can make donations to the charity when they buy certain items to use in their online game. (PRNewsFoto/Pizza Hut)

FarmVille's game players bring clean water to the real world

By Lindsay / 12.17.12

Tilling virtual crops from their urban apartments and assembling criminal empires from the comfort of suburban homes, online gamers seem to live in worlds far removed from reality.

Zynga Inc., the provider of some of Facebook’s most popular games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars, projects a different picture. This month, the company has partnered with to raise money for a resource precious to both FarmVille 2 farmers and actual communities all over the world – water.

During the month long campaign, three branded items – sprinklers, water pumps, and jerry cans – are available for purchase within FarmVille 2. Zynga will donate 100 percent of the proceeds to

Founded by Gary White and the actor Matt Damon, provides safe water and sanitation to communities in need. Funds support well-building, and toilet and microfinance initiatives.

This collaboration marks a growing trend in gaming for social impact. Nonprofits welcome the opportunity to raise awareness for their causes within vast player networks. FarmVille 2 has more than 56 million monthly active users, many who play the game several times per day.

“We try to catch them in the place where they’re enjoying themselves,” said Mike McCamon, chief community officer of “It’s an interesting place to introduce them to the problem.”

Ken Weber, executive director of, believes that the immersive environments of social games attract passionate players who invest their time for months and even years.

“These games are contextual for them,” he said. “Water is important in farming and in the world – it is a naturally occurring relationship. We are connecting something in people’s lives. We are interested in creating a dynamic that makes it work.”

That donors are having fun, increasing the production of their online farms while supporting development in communities worldwide, creates a parallel less prominent in other campaigns such as Facebook Gifts. Released earlier this year, that Facebook feature allows users to donate to one of 11 charities ( included) on behalf of their friends. Although this brings publicity to both the cause and the Facebook user, it doesn’t help the virtual grass grow.

Developers linking virtual challenges to real world results capitalize on gaming’s allure. Game designer Jane McGonigal created SuperBetter while she was bedridden after a concussion. The game allows players to become superheroes fighting their own health battles by accomplishing tasks in their everyday lives. Bad habits are more exciting to break when reframed as “bad guys” in the virtual environment.

But gamer goodwill for the physical world should not be discounted. More than just a fundraiser, the campaign aims to educate users about the world water crisis. By clicking on the items for sale, players are presented with information about the organization and given the option to visit the nonprofit’s website.

Many players are willing to step out of the game world to learn about the real one. According to McCamon, several of’s highest web traffic days have been due in large part to visitors redirected from FarmVille 2.

Weber echoes this sentiment about the interests of Zynga’s users. He says that, the company’s philanthropic division, was developed in 2009 in response to employee and player demand for a connection to real world issues. One of the first campaigns raised over $1 million for Haiti earthquake relief in 2010.

This success led Zynga to focus on everyday philanthropic causes beyond unpredictable natural disasters. To date, Zynga has raised more than $13 million for nonprofits such as Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity, and World Food Programme.

So there you have it, virtual farmers, mobsters, and superheroes: Keep gaming, and recruit your friends.

This article first appeared on

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Farmer Karim Traore surveys his cotton field outside Koutiala, Mali, in August. He planned to sell his crop to the Malian national cotton company. Many small farmers could benefit from having a contract with a buyer in place before they plant. (Joe Penney/Reuters/File)

Four ways to help 'contract farming' benefit the very poor

By Andy FraserGlobal Envision / 12.14.12

Will contract farming, done right, serve as the missing link between small farmers and markets?

Contract farming, an agreement between a farmer and a buyer, can offer many benefits to smallholder farmers. They guarantee a buyer and often provide extra perks like better access to yield-boosting inputs.

Anti-poverty organizations, as well as large grocery-store chains, are looking to contracts as a “win-win” solution that fights poverty while guaranteeing a reliable, year-round flow of organic and niche produce to national and international markets.

Here's the potential problem: Contract farming, in itself, doesn’t directly reach or benefit the farmers who need help most.

Corporations view farmers at the bottom of the income bracket as liabilities — likely to fail in meeting obligations. According to a study last year by AgWater Solutions (pdf), contract farming “is unlikely to reach the poorest farmers … Schemes tend to select better-off farmers who can bear risks or pay an initial commitment fee."

Additionally, poor farmers are smallholder farmers. Corporations are less likely to enter a contract with farmers who own small tracts of land and who are scattered and isolated geographically — the transportation costs are too high and the communication too unpredictable and difficult.

Then there’s the issue of power inequality and “information asymmetry.” Small farmers who aren’t members of a cooperative or farmer’s association lack the bargaining power, lawyers, and sophisticated technology of big buyers.

Here’s the beginning of a solution: The Rural Livelihoods Development Programme and AgWater Solutions are two great examples of organizations trying to find ways of using contract farming to fight rural poverty. RLDC's most recent annual report (pdf) and AgWater's website both offer guidelines for how investors and antipoverty organizations can ensure both the small farmer and the corporation fully realize the “win-win” of contract farming: They include:

  • Offer legal education and institutional frameworks that let both the smallholder farmer and the corporation understand the terms of the contract and any local legal resources available.
  • Support farmer organizations' and cooperatives' efforts to understand the risks and benefits of contract farming in general.
  • Ensure poor farmers can participate in contract farming. An example: Buyers and processors could issue micro-loans, crop insurance, and agricultural inputs as a term of contract with poorer farmers.
  • Identify some sort of incentive for companies to invest in poor smallholder farmers.

Contract farming offers a way for smallholder farmers to enter the marketplace. It can link an isolated rural economy to a globe full of potential buyers.

But contracts aren’t a silver bullet. A contract between vulnerable farmers and powerful agribusinesses is inherently risky for farmers, so it’s crucial they have access to education and legal services.

It’s also essential that contract farming is encouraged alongside established farmer cooperatives or another association that has access to market information.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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Three volunteers share a laugh while they serve home-cooked meal to residents of Memphis Towers, an independent living community for the elderly and disabled in Memphis, Tenn, Dec. 10, 2012. In 2011 more Americans volunteered to help others than in any year since 2005. (Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal/AP)

Number of volunteers in US hits highest level since 2005

By Doug DonovanThe Chronicle of Philanthropy / 12.13.12

More Americans volunteered in 2011 than in any year since 2005, a new study finds. Approximately 64.3 million Americans volunteered at charities last year, providing 7.9 billion hours of service valued at $171 billion.

The 1.5 million additional volunteers boosted the national rate to 26.8 percent of the population, a half percentage point higher than 2010. But the dollar value dipped by $2 billion, as the average number of hours Americans volunteered in a year dropped to 32.7 from 33.9, the Corporation for National and Community Service reported.

Robert Grimm, director of the Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at the University of Maryland, said the increase was mainly the result of the growth in the American population, not a response to the economy or other factors.

National volunteer rates hit their peak of nearly 29 percent from 2003 to 2005 but have been stuck at around 26 percent ever since, according to a survey of about 100,000 people age 16 and older conducted by the US Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of volunteers is down from a 2005 high of 65.4 million.

The average number of hours has declined from a high of nearly 38 in 2004. Researchers say the dip may not be a sign that volunteers are actually spending fewer hours at charities, but that they might not be accurately remembering every year exactly how much time they give.

Utah outpaced all states last year with the highest percentage of residents who volunteer. However, the volunteer rate for the heavily Mormon state fell from 44.5 percent in 2010 to 40.9 percent last year, and the hours per resident dropped by 19 to an average of 70.3 hours.

Iowa, which had ranked second for the past two years, dropped to third place as Idaho jumped eight spots in state rankings to take the No. 2 position.

But Iowans appear to have taken seriously a plea from the state’s governor, Terry Branstad, for every resident to volunteer at least 50 hours a year. The state average for volunteer hours in Iowa was 41.9 last year, up nearly eight hours from the state’s reported average of 34.2 in 2010.

In Idaho, the growth in volunteerism comes in part because tutoring services and employment assistance centers were pushing people to give their time, according to officials at the Serve Idaho commission on volunteering and service.

“Parents are volunteering much more in schools,” said Renee Cox, a Serve Idaho program manager. She said the commission had also gotten better at collecting data on volunteering trends, which could explain the increase as well.

Utah also tops all states in “doing favors for and helping out neighbors,” called “informal volunteering,” the study finds.

Two out of three citizens helped their neighbors in 2011, an increase of 9.5 percent. The most neighborly states were Utah, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Montana, Vermont and Iowa (tied), and Idaho.

Among other key findings:

• Volunteer rates were higher in rural areas (27.7 percent) and suburban areas (27.5 percent) than in urban areas (23.4 percent).

Religion, education, and social services attracted a bigger share of volunteers than other causes.

• Volunteers said they spent most of their time fundraising, collecting and distributing food, providing labor or transportation, and tutoring.

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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