Exit public funds: enter volunteers?

"People care." The two words, in a soft Mississippi accent, bear equal emphasis. For Stella Trafford knows her subject. In the gracious comfort of her Marlborough Street home, the woman who organized the recent fund raiser for the Commonwealth Avenue Mall speaks quietly about the three aspects of Boston she cares most about: plants, politics, and volunteerism.

The plants include the 700 trees on the mall -- that eight-block piece of parkland designed by Frederick Law Olmsted as part of the "emerald necklace" of city parks circling Boston.

The politics involve the inner workings of the Parks and Recreation Department. In the 16 years since the mall's stately elms first caught her attention, she has been through five parks commissioners. Now, with the future clouded by Proposition 2 1/2, politics involves Mayor Kevin H. White's proposal to cut the parks budget by 60 percent, from $9.2 million to $3.7 million.

And the volunteerism defines her role as chairman of the Commonwealth Avenue Committee, which operates under the umbrella of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. In that capacity, she buys and plants new trees, helps organize spraying and fertilizing operations, and generally keeps an eye on her beloved stretch of green.

Volunteerism also defines her place in a vast network of Bostonians: the not-for-pay workers who, as financing for public amenities and nonprofit organizations runs farther onto the shoals, may prove increasingly important in keeping this city's quality of life afloat.

For the way society chooses to balance its public-sector services and its private volunta y efforts may be in for a sea change of a kind unseen since the Great Depression. Federal grant-in-aid outlays, which have grown ninefold between 1965 ($10.9 billion) and 1980 ($91.5 billion), are scheduled for severe cutbacks. The Reagan administration's "new federalism" will hand back more power (and less money) to states and municipalities.

No one is yet sure how deep the various cuts in next year's federal funding will go. Nor, locally, is anyone yet sure what the state legislature will do to mitigate the impact of Proposition 2 1/2. But the 14,000 nonprofit organizations in the Greater Boston area are not waiting to see. Clobbered by inflation and energy costs, they are turning increasingly toward private sources -- including the Permanent Charity Fund with its $75 million endowment. With government agencies telling grant applicants these days to go fish in private waters, however, the fund can't keep up. Last year it disbursed nearly $6 million among 600 requests. This year it has had 1,800 proposals.

The handwriting, as Mrs. Trafford sees it, is on the wall. "The citizen who does think," she says, "can't help but realize that in the end it comes down to us." For her, "us" means the volunteer.

So on April 27 she did something new. She put $1,000 into supplies for a gala party. She sent out 2,000 invitations. She got George Plimpton to speak. And when it was over her committee had cleared $5,000. The checks are still coming in, many from people outside Boston who want to preserve one of the city's great resources.

On the face of it, her work sits squarely in the tradition that has flourished in Boston for centuries. Boston, in fact, has the oldest volunteer bureau in the nation -- the United Way's Voluntary Action Center (VAC), founded in 1926 and dedicated to bringing together would-be volunteers with the more than 500 private and public agencies that need them these days. VAC director Jane Bowers says that this year they have seen a 60 percent increase in the number of volunteers applying.

But if the tradition persists, its outlines may be changing. no longer is the volunteer the middle-age, middle-class housewife. Many are retirees.But the surprise, says Mrs. Bowers, comes in "the high proportion of young working adults" -- people who need what she calls "a sense of giving."

What do these volunteers do? A check with a few local institutions suggests the breadth of effort being contributed:

* Museum of Fine Arts. One of the most sophisticated and prestigious operations in Boston is the MFA's Ladies' Committee. Its 70 women staff information booths, give tours, and serve as hostesses for parties and receptions. After a four-year stint they graduate to associate status. As a major institution, the MFA may not need to consider expanding the role of its volunteers even if, as anticipated, the National Endowment for the Arts (one of its important sources of funds) endures a 50 percent cutback. Grants officer William Bodine says, "Corporate support will pick up the slack."

* The Children's Museum. coordinating a volunteer program that is only a year old, Evelyn Berman has already written 35 different job descriptions -- calling for everything from bibliographers and editors to menders of the hands-on exhibitions. "We're not clear that the private sector can pick up the slack," public information officer Jonathan Hyde says. "I think it's clear that volunteerism will become increasingly important."

* The Museum of Science. "There is a strong philosophy that the volunteers should not replace the paid staff," volunteer coordinator Gwen Ferrini says. There is, she notes, a "very delicate relationship" between the staff and her 650 volunteers, which would be threatened if the staff felt their jobs were at risk. She sees an expanded role for volunteers in devising and executing ways to "raise money creatively" --with such labor-intensive projects as garage sales (the last of which brought in $50,000 in two days) or this year's raffle.

* School Volunteers for Boston. Now in its 15th year, this group sends 2,500 volunteers into the public schools to tutor children in reading, help teach English as a second language, and run the school libraries. Director Isabel Besecker notes thay they are not there to replace teachers but to provide "an extra pair of hands." She says many an elderly person has told her that School Volunteers has "saved my life" -- by giving him or her something worthwhile to do. As school funding decreases, she predicts that "we will get more requests for help."

Is volunteerism, then, the city's great renewable resource? Can organizations which formerly tried to secure funds turn instead toward securing people? So far, says Permanent Charity Fund director Geno A. Ballotti, that is not happening. Women who might once have given deeply of their time are now moving into careers of their own. "Ten years ago that career could have been a little halfway house," he notes.He mentions one woman's organization which for the first time in its history has had to hire, rather than elect, a director.

And it may well be, as the VAC's Jane Bowers says, that "it's Pollyannish to believe that volunteers can substitute for paid staff." The kinds of accountability, the nature of the responsibilities, are very different, she says.

But a shift may be in the wind toward smaller-scale, more intimate activities -- a kind of "new federalism" of volunteerism which, freed from the impersonalities of red rape and formalized regulations, may be able to deliver services (like tree-planting or school librarianship) which for years have been left to the public sector.

If that is to happen -- if volunteers are to flow in to replace public services that once were purchased -- several changes in attitude must occur.First, the various business communities around the city need to take a hard look at the needs of their own neighborhoods. Years of the Great Society mentality have lulled some into thinking that only the government can maintain the social fabric and preserve the environment --Many already contribute -- in money, in services, in released executive time. More can be done.

But it can only be done if the public sector is willing to cede authority to private groups -- is willing, for example, to engage in public-private partnerships which include a private-sector say over budgets. Parks Commissioner John Vitagliano is one of those willing to see the city act as a marriage broker between neighborhood associations and the private sector -- if only he could get any commitments from downtown businessmen. He seems willing to give up the very thing most politicians cherish: power over chunks of public money. There need to be more like him -- a breed of politicians who can retain their responsibility as elected officials while working closely with local private-sector interests.

Finally, the times may dictate some deep changes in the nature of volunteerism. Volunteers may well have to replace staff. That may not come in the highly skilled areas. Nor will it come right away in those areas where great consistency or large responsibilities are required -- although volunteers trained in the standards of such groups as the League of women Voters or the Junior League seem ready to shoulder some pretty serious burdens.

Are these changes unfortunate? Not necessarily. Bostonians, like the British, will probably find in the pending financial drought the inner strength to retreat to first principles -- to compassion that is not institutionalized, to care that is individual.

Those are the principles that the VAC's Mrs. Bowers articulates when, speaking for something much larger than Boston or America, she says, very simply , "We are a society in which people help each other."

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