General Ramblings: Raise Your Hand

September 1, 2008       Paul Clolery      

Approximately 500 folks in really expensive business garb, or more leisurely but nearly as expensive attire, will gather on September 11 in New York City for the first ServiceNation Summit. Several million dollars will be spent on the event and the subsequent day of action. At this writing, at least one of the presidential candidates will be there. And it’s all in the name of rallying the citizenry into public service, paid or otherwise.

The core concept is to draw people into AmeriCorps or one of several other federally-Stipended programs. Once trained, those folks will be sent into the field to help coordinate traditional volunteers in communities around the nation.

It’s a noble idea. And, The NonProfit Times is a media sponsor of the event. I’m just having a hard time getting my arms around the idea that volunteers need to be leveraged to do more or to be more effective.

Nonprofits have long utilized volunteers, some more effectively than others. And, citizen service to a nation is a worthy cause.

I just can’t help thinking, though, that we need fewer trained “leveragers” and more folks Working hands-on in communities delivering services at food banks, social service agencies and volunteer fire departments. Basically, it’s more folks getting their hands dirty.

But volunteering in the United States is changing. It’s far more episodic. Many volunteers want short-term projects, not long-term commitments. They want to clean a park one Saturday, not take a shift every Monday night at the volunteer ambulance squad.

So the issue might not be leverage, but rather, stability in the volunteer ranks. The issue of stipending volunteers has always been contentious. In this case many of the volunteers would be receiving a check from the federal government so charities won’t be directly impacted from a dollars and cents standpoint.

Perhaps the concept of volunteering and receiving nothing but a thank you is too quaint for our times. There’s no limit to the generosity of Americans with their checkbooks when it’s clear that they are needed. Just look at the over-the-top reaction to Hurricane Katrina and the September 11 terrorist attacks. Time is in shorter supply these days, with households with multiple wage-earners and often in multiple jobs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor, roughly 61 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2006 and September 2007. The government defined volunteers as persons who did unpaid work (except for expenses) through or for an organization. That’s about 26 percent of the population and 0.5 percent less than the year before. And, that prior rate was 2.1 percent less than the year before it.

The organizers of the ServiceNation Summit want to get it to 100 million volunteers by 2020. They have more than 500 events planned around the nation to rally people to volunteer. It’s going to take more than a rally to get volunteers to stick and reverse the downward trend. Maybe little initially will come of this summit. Volunteering is changing and just maybe ideas that evolve from the conversation started in New York City will eventually turn the tide. NPT