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A New Age of Volunteerism?


In his State of the Union address this past January, President Bush called on all Americans to "commit at least two years—4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime—to the service of your neighbors and your nation." In particular, he touted the U.S. Freedom Corps and its four branches: the Citizen Corps, the AmeriCorps, the Senior Corps, and the Peace Corps. The speech drew a strong reaction, and many high-profile institutions, including the various Corps, reported a dramatic increase in volunteer inquiries. But has this initial surge in enthusiasm matured into a new spirit of volunteerism in the United States? And more important, will it translate into community support for the small struggling charities that need it the most?
In a survey of individuals involved with nonprofits that use, GuideStar found that less than 20 percent reported an increase in volunteers since this time last year. The majority indicated no significant change in either the number of volunteers or the type of people volunteering. At the same time, more than half of those surveyed responded affirmatively when asked if they felt that the events of September 11 had an overall effect on volunteering in the United States.

"I noticed a slight increase in the spirit of volunteerism, but also noted that most of the spirit was directed toward disaster-relief, Red Cross, or other organizations directly pertaining to 9/11," commented Prudence Chapman, supervisor of volunteer services at the Shattuck Shelter—Center for the Homeless in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Another respondent noted, "Many of our volunteers shifted their time to direct service and disaster relief organizations." A surge of volunteerism inspired by the events of September 11 seems to be out there, but its effect isn't trickling down to a broad representation of organizations.

"We sometimes find it difficult to recruit and retain long term volunteers. We have a number of college students who do one time or short term service, but we need more long term volunteers who will be reliable week after week, month after month."

—Anonymous respondent

After the attacks, our country experienced an unprecedented outpouring of generosity as a direct response to the tragedies. People across the world opened their wallets, donated blood, and offered their services in an attempt to make a difference in a time of great need. Much was achieved, but in the end the results of this charitable outpouring seemed to be far less than the sum of its parts. Dissatisfaction and confusion reigned, and many of those who had set out to help instead came under fire. Even organizations that escaped criticism encountered a surprising amount of disappointment mixed with the expected gratitude.

Similar concerns about good intentions coming up short are rising in regard to the new wave of volunteers inspired by 9/11. "Yes, more people want to become involved," remarked one anonymous respondent. "However, many still aren't taking the time to learn about needs (before jumping into an activity) or making responsible commitments that make for productive volunteers that really make a difference."

A respondent from Safe Harbor Boy's Home in Jacksonville, Florida, put it this way: "We have seen a minor upswing in people desiring to volunteer in the past few months, but what we see are individuals who are unsure what they want to do for the organization. When presented with the volunteer jobs of the organization, many decide they don't 'like' that job and then do not return or become disappointed. We try to find a fit between the volunteer and job to the best of our ability so the volunteer will be happy and want to return. It seems many want a 'glory' job and are not willing and in some cases unable to do the mundane, every day tasks that are so critical to our operations."

Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Doing Well

"Society continues to glorify 'volunteers' but does not overtly value knowing about and helping out one's neighbors and extended family, as if helping a stranger is more significant."

—Anonymous respondent

April 21 marks the start of National Volunteer Week. Initiated by President Nixon in 1974, National Volunteer Week is designed to recognize our nation's volunteers and celebrate their selfless efforts. But it can be more than that. Whether you see yourself as a global citizen or prefer to look no farther than the end of your block, it can be a time to consider what it is that you take from your community, what you want to give back to it, and just how much you can give.

Volunteering is about your time, but it's only partly about you. Take a few minutes and assess the needs of your community and the organizations that serve it. The Internet is a powerful tool for this sort of research. Jason Willett, director of communications for VolunteerMatch, offers the following advice for aspiring volunteers:

  1. Know Your Limits
    Before getting started, we encourage anyone interested in volunteering to assess their personal schedule to determine how much time they can spare. Mentoring or tutoring might require several hours or more per week, while a beach cleanup may just take a few hours once a year. A realistic understanding of how much time you have to give helps ensure that both you and the organization will enjoy a good experience.
  2. Do What You Like
    There is a rich and diverse world of volunteer opportunities available, offering something for every possible interest, passion and skill set. Whether you choose to volunteer using skills that are comfortable and familiar, or learn skills that are new and challenging, the point is to find something that you find personally satisfying and rewarding.
  3. The More the Merrier
    If appropriate to the activity and approved by the volunteer organization, consider inviting friends, family or coworkers along. It is a great way to have fun doing something positive with those who are familiar to you, and simultaneously introduce them to the fulfillment that comes with being a volunteer.
  4. Enjoy Yourself!
    The most important thing to remember. Volunteering is about making a positive difference and giving back to others in need, and feeling personally engaged and rewarded by the experience. No one benefits from the efforts of someone who is frustrated or burned out. But when someone is committed, inspired and motivated to be a part of social change, everyone wins.
With so much need in this world, there's an opportunity for every person who wants to volunteer. We all have something to contribute. Take some time before you give your time ... the results will be worth it.

Volunteer Resources

Ready for some research? Here are some good places on the Internet to get started.

  • City Cares of America Network
  • Idealist
  • Points of Light Foundation
  • SERVEnet
  • U.S. Freedom Corps
  • VolunteerMatch
  • Volunteer Solutions


The preceding is a guest post by Patrick Ferraro, a freelance writer in Seoul, Korea, and a former editor of the Newsletter.

Topics: Volunteers GuideStar 9/11