On the way home from work one day last April, Chris Harris found a little sister.
''She came up to me on the sidewalk and asked me where I was going and sort of struck up a conversation,'' Miss Harris recalls. ''Then she asked me if I had any children and if I wanted any.''
Chris Harris followed her inquisitive young friend home, to a group home for adolescent girls sponsored by Volunteers of America. Several talks with the girl's house parents and a check of Chris's references convinced all concerned that she was just the kind of volunteer ''big sister'' they'd been hoping for.
During the past year, Chris and her little sister have spent a lot of time together, going out to dinner and to the movies or baking cookies at home. ''It's hard to think of it in terms of hours spent,'' says Chris. ''We just have a lot of fun together.''
Chris Harris may be typical of the 84 million Americans who, according to a recent Gallup Survey, volunteer some 8.4 billion hours a year, often because they become personally involved with someone in need of help.
''We get a lot of calls from people who've had some sort of contact with our projects in their community,'' says Marianne Rebel, executive director of the Boston office of Volunteers of America, a Christian human services organization founded in 1896 that now has 125 chapters nationwide. ''They may know a child or an elderly person who goes to their church, and they want to know what they can do to help.''
Today, whenever Miss Rebel hears from someone who's interested in donating time, she's likely to spend a full morning driving the prospective volunteer from one program to another on unannounced visits. A welcome at McCrohon House, a shared-living home for the elderly, often includes a sample of homemade blueberry muffins. At the organization's alcoholic treament center, the visitor can look over the daily schedule of activities and see the wallpapering and interior renovating done by the residents. Each of the three homes for young children has a friendly cat and plenty of tidy rooms to show off.
''We need volunteers in so many areas,'' she explains, ''from helping with fund raising, to cleaning, to big sistering, to driving people to community events.''
Miss Rebel's organization also needs more money. ''But for private business to help us, we have to be more accountable,'' she continues. ''We can no longer get away with saying, 'Bills? Oh, we keep them in shoe boxes.' And we also have to start relying a lot more on the community.''
Human services organizations like Volunteers of America -- those which care for the aged, retarded, disabled, poor, and young -- have been hardest hit by federal budget cutbacks in the voluntary sector, according to a recent report compiled by the Brookings Institution and the Center for Responsive Government. ''The Fiscal Capacity of the Voluntary Sector,'' to be published soon, takes a close look at not-for-profit volunteer organizations in education and research, culture, civic and social action, health services, human services, and religion.
Calling these groups ''one of the most vibrant growth components of the overall national economy,'' researchers Bruce L. R. Smith and Nelson M. Rosenbaum point out that the voluntary sector doubled between 1975 and 1980. The growth has brought with it a number of identifiable trends, including new forms of partnership between non-profit and profit organizations and more business-like operations in general.
But for programs to survive in the present decade, the report suggests that organizations will have to become more efficient and more selective in the services they offer, and that government will have to take at least some responsibility. In some cases, the strain can be eased by increasing ''user fees'' and managing endowments and assets better. But the ''core of the voluntary sector,'' the human services organizations, are seriously ''endangered'' and will have to find creative ways to raise money and recruit volunteers.
''We share the belief that severe problems will exist in the face of government retrenchment....But we also believe that new ways can and will be found to maintain a high service society and to improve the quality of our lives ,'' the report states. ''....The eventual outcome will be shaped by how the public reacts to the process of change and adaptation within the voluntary sector.''
Expanding on this somewhat optimistic outlook, Brookings's Bruce Smith told the Monitor, ''We're really on the threshold of a lot of major rethinking of social policy. The administration strategy has not resolved these questions. It has just initiated the debate.''
Thanks to the efforts of the Human Services Information Forum, a non-profit information center with headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, participants in the debate have been getting plenty of pertinent data. Beginning in February and concluding at the end of March, information seminars in 20 major U.S. cities have explored the anticipated national impact of the 1983 federal budget on human services organizations. As the information and predictions continue to pour in, and as National Volunteer Week approaches (April 18-24), many organizations around the U.S. are finding enthusiastic community response to their search for new volunteers and new sources of funding:
* In Lansing, Michigan, where 16 percent of the state's work force is unemployed, a community food bank project has ensured that food is available to everyone who needs it.
''Whether or not you agree with what has happened, you can agree that there needs to be a greater use of volunteers,'' says Bill Fairgrave of the Michigan Block Grant Coalition. ''The food bank has been set up in such a way that county , state, and federal officials have been involved, as well as local churches and workers' groups.''
* In Cincinnati, the Voluntary Action Center (VAC) is exploring new ways to involve business and local government. Under a contract with Cincinnati officials, VAC provides volunteers for a number of municipal departments, ranging from litter clean-ups in the park to data processing at city hall. Exhibits also are set up in company cafeterias where employees can explore opportunities for volunteer service during their lunch hours and coffee breaks, and interested corporate board members are notified when a local charity needs personnel counseling or financial advice.
''The community is responding very positively to what's happened (in budget cutbacks),'' says VAC director Peggy Pauly. ''We're really encouraged by the fact that we've not had to go out and look for support. Companies are calling us on their own, asking what they can do to help.''
* In Orlando, Florida, one of the fastest growing regions in the U.S., $100 tickets for a recent hospice benefit sold out as fast as they were offered, just weeks after a local ''meals on wheels'' program had sponsored a standing-room-only benefit dance.
''We find that volunteer groups are becoming a lot more innovative in their fund-raising efforts,'' says Julie Washburn, executive director of Orlando's Volunteer Service Bureau and president of the national Association of Volunteer Bureaus. ''The more people are involved, the more supportive they become, and the more willingly they give. It's a real snowball effect.
''In the replies she's now receiving to a questionnaire that recently was sent to some 200 agencies in Orange County, Ms. Washburn says she's spotting a number of encouraging trends. More agencies are asking corporations and businesses for help -- and getting it. More people are signing up as volunteers in a number of areas: the American Red Cross reports a 21 percent increase in volunteers, hospices are getting 20 percent more volunteers, and recreation departments report an increase of 10 percent.
In the months ahead volunteer organizations will be keeping a close watch on the findings of the presidential Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives, established last October to study the future of volunteerism in the U.S. The National Center for Charitable Statistics, a data collection program established March 15 under the auspices of the Council on Foundations, Independent Sector, the National Information Bureau, and United Way of America, also will be providing information on volunteer giving in the U.S.
Another item getting close scrutiny in Washington is a bill introduced in the Senate on March 11 by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Sen. David Durenberger (R-MN), designed to allow volunteers to work in some federal agencies.
''What we're talking about in this bill is the person who wants to give a few hours a week,'' says Bill Wilcox, an aide to Sen. Specter. ''It's something that would help supplement, rather than replace, federal employees.'' Opportunities for federal volunteer service might include work in health clinics, prisons, federal hospitals, and national parks and forests.