NEWS STORY: Summit meeting may spur more volunteers than needed

c. 1997 Religion News Service UNDATED _ A panoply of the prominent and the powerful _ including three U.S. presidents, former first lady Nancy Reagan, and talk show host Oprah Winfrey _ will gather in Philadelphia next week (April 27-29) to encourage Americans to step up and volunteer, putting a special emphasis on aiding poor […]

c. 1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ A panoply of the prominent and the powerful _ including three U.S. presidents, former first lady Nancy Reagan, and talk show host Oprah Winfrey _ will gather in Philadelphia next week (April 27-29) to encourage Americans to step up and volunteer, putting a special emphasis on aiding poor children.”The Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future,”chaired by retired Gen. Colin Powell, is meant to be a clarion call to Americans to donate some time to groups like Big Brothers/Big Sisters, or Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

But even as the glossy names gather, the leaders of many charity groups wonder if these public figures realize how many Americans don’t need a clarion call. And for some groups, the new volunteers could be more trouble than they’re worth.

More than half of adult Americans already make time to do volunteer work, according to a Roper Center poll. And Independent Sector, a coalition of 900 nonprofit groups, reports these volunteers put in a very impressive average 4.2 hours weekly.

Veteran charity professionals are also concerned people don’t realize how much structure and, frankly, money, it takes to screen, train and supervise volunteer workers. Most charitable organizations say that right now they have too little money to deal with a fresh wave of volunteers. Would-be volunteers motivated by the summit may be discouraged if they turn up at a local charity unable to give them something meaningful to do.

Tom McKenna, director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters, said there’s a “common misconception that you don’t need an infrastructure to develop volunteer programs.” His organization, which pairs volunteers with kids who ask for help, has a waiting list of 43,000 children.

But McKenna estimates it takes $1,000 annually per volunteer for screening, training and supervising. For obvious reasons, screening is particularly important in charities serving children. A police check of a potential volunteer’s background costs about $35.

At many other volunteer groups, though not at Big Brothers, the volunteer coordinator has many other duties, and is often at the bottom of the pay scale.

“People have this idiotic idea that volunteers are free,” says Susan Ellis, president of Energize, Philadelphia-based consultants on how to use volunteers well.

Ellis is also concerned the emphasis on one-to-one work with children is a smokescreen for the damage done by welfare cuts.

“The way they’re looking at service to children is narrow _ everyone being high on mentoring. Which is a paternalistic, old-fashioned charity approach, and an insult to the children’s parents. Some children don’t need mentors, they need their parents to have a decent job.”

Many longtime charity leaders are similarly wary.

Kay Bengston, assistant director of the office for governmental affairs of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one of the largest religious organizations serving the poor, said, “I just talked to a woman from Alabama who said her county had 11 job openings and 3,000 people coming off welfare and required to get jobs; no volunteer is going to be able to deal with that.”

Still, Bengston hoped the summit could be an antidote to last year’s welfare debate.

“In order to justify cutting all these funds, a lot of mean rhetoric came down blasting the values of low-income people and now we are reaping the consequences of that. Any help from volunteers has to come in conjunction with meeting people’s basic needs,”she said.

Sharon Daly, director of social policy for Catholic Charities, agreed.”It’s a terrible mistake to think volunteers or churches can make the difference when government programs are cut,” she said.

For example, Daly pointed to the 500,000 legal immigrants, mostly elderly, who will lose their benefits in August under the new welfare bill.”It will be certainly useful to have someone volunteer to home-deliver meals, or to drive an older person to a doctor’s appointment,”she said.”But I don’t think many of those volunteers are going to write checks for $450 a month, the amount you’d need to make up for the loss of benefits.”

Daly sees the summit as well-intentioned, but worries people will say, “This is fine. I’ll get my taxes cut, and I’ll make up for it by tutoring one hour a week.”

Bengston and Daly are sitting it out, watching the summit from Washington.

But Tom McKenna, whose Big Brothers/Big Sisters is based in Philadelphia, with 510 agencies across the country, has adopted a different strategy. He is making himself a key player. As part of the lead-up to the summit, he pledged to double by the year 2000 the group’s matches of volunteers to kids _ going from 100,000 to 200,000 _ a feat which by his calculation could cost $10 million a year.

McKenna has already signed up some big corporate sponsors including Pillsbury Co., and Sears, Roebuck and Co., and will be looking for more help from the business leaders gathered this coming weekend. His plan is to cut the cost of screening and training volunteers by developing partnerships in which corporations provide a steady stream of reliable volunteers.

Like many other charity leaders, McKenna hopes the Philadelphia meeting will inspire more companies to give employees paid time off for community service.

United Parcel Service already pays employees for two hours a week to work in schools or with the homeless, and last year AT&T started giving its employees one paid day off annually for volunteer work. Timberland, makers of work shoes and boots, will pay each of its 5,000 employees to take a week’s worth of time every year to volunteer with young people.

The shift from religious to secular providers would be a big change.

According to Independent Sector, nearly half of the people who currently volunteer do their work through their church or synagogue _ teaching Sunday school counts, or singing in the choir, as well as working in a religion-based soup kitchen.

Besides being active in religion, Independent Sector found the most important single factor in determining whether someone volunteers is whether the person is asked. Asking people is in large measure what this Philadelphia meeting is about, says Harris Wofford, former senator from Pennsylvania, current head of Americorps and the person who kept after Clinton to call the summit.


To make sure corporations and charities follow through on any summit-inspired pledges, Powell has set up a group called “America’s Promise: the Partnership for America’s Future.”

He has enlisted some charity pros, including a couple of foundation presidents and Billy Shore, head of Share Our Strength, an anti-hunger group that has been particularly effective over the last 12 years in attracting corporate partnerships. Shore says he hopes to inspire “a new corporate ethic, that community service isn’t an afterthought, that it can be strategically targeted.”

By coincidence a Pew Research Center poll on citizen involvement in public life, released 10 days before the Philadelphia summit, found that most Americans believe they can have a significant effect on problems in their communities and that a lot of them would like to volunteer more. The hitch is that along with this high level of trust in their own ability to change things goes a high level of distrust of large institutions and public figures.


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