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.

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."

"Institutions, namely the schools, have realized that students learn about a lot of things if they are out there helping the community."

The US may reap that benefit for years to come, experts say, because the earlier someone gets involved in volunteer work, the more likely the habit will continue for a lifetime.

Preliminary results of a survey of 1,600 former University of Virginia students found that the graduate who hadn't volunteered in college averaged less than two hours a week in volunteer work. Those who had done community service in college averaged an extra hour a week, a huge jump in terms of charity work.

Students often do this work for less-than-altruistic reasons - to spruce up a rsum or college application. Retirees also have other motives for volunteering - to substitute for their previous work or to feel connected to the community.

The two groups tend to work for different kinds of organizations. While students donate time to secular groups, such as those involved in environmental issues, church is the No. 1 volunteer activity of retirees. Of senior volunteers, 36 percent of those who volunteered cited churches as their primary volunteer sites, says Norah Peters, chair of the sociology department at Beaver College in Philadelphia who is conducting an ongoing study. That was nearly three times the No. 2 site and held true for men as well as women.

"The core of voluntarism is still built around congregations and churches," says Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago.

Can churches make a difference? Some observers are optimistic because church membership tends to be a long-term rather than short-term commitment.

"Don't lose sight of the enormous reservoir of energy in our churches," says Steven Nock, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia. "I look to religious organizations as the front line here."

Another resource is the corporation. Many are starting to offer incentives, such as time off, to encourage charitable activity. After seeing voluntarism among its employees dip from 82 percent in 1992 to 56 percent in the second quarter of 1996, AT&T began its AT&T Cares program, which stopped the downturn.

But few, if any, observers believe volunteers can make up for government cuts in welfare and other social programs.

For one thing, they lack the intense training and sensitivity to intervene in family-crisis situations, says Dr. Peters. "I'm not sure volunteers can fill in the gaps."

Nor should they, argues Adam Meyerson, vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington: "We should not look to voluntarism to fix government's failures."

Instead of asking volunteers to teach children how to read, as Mr. Clinton has, society should focus on why schools haven't accomplished it themselves, he says.

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