Good Help Really Is Hard To Find

In San Francisco, Ronald McDonald House can't find people to cook dinners for its lodgers, the families of seriously ill children. New York City's Boy Scouts council has started paying college students $8 an hour to lead troops; its ratio of scouts to adult volunteers has tripled in five years.

Staff members at almost any nonprofit organization will tell you: Good volunteer help is getting harder to find. In 1991, the number of U.S. volunteers declined 4.3%, to 94.2 million, from two years before, according to Independent Sector, a coalition of philanthropic organizations. Since then, say nonprofit groups, the competition for unpaid workers has intensified. "You want people who are going to be stable and committed," says Steven H. Lawrence, executive director of the San Francisco Ronald McDonald House. "But we're finding increasingly that people's time isn't their own."

SWING SHIFTS. What's emerging is a new sort of volunteer: eager to help but also careerist and project-oriented. "And [with] no time," says Evie Black, 23. Early on a wintry Sunday on Chicago's North Side, Black and a dozen other young management trainees from First Chicago Corp. have gathered for a coffee klatch at the Emanuel Congregation synagogue. This isn't exactly bank business: Black and her colleagues will spend the morning helping recent Russian immigrants pick up English-language skills.

To attract and keep such people as Black, nonprofit agencies have had to rethink the way they operate, designing programs around the schedules of overbooked two-job families and, more and more, the resources of Corporate America. The result: a patchwork of on-off services that may better match the needs of the agencies' volunteers than those of its clients.

Volunteerism used to be a lot simpler. When Mom didn't work, she had a few hours each week for Meals on Wheels or her daughter's Girl Scout troop. Dad came home at 6 p.m. and dinner was on the table, leaving plenty of time for the United Way board meeting. But the movement of women to full-time paid work has removed a dependable source of free daytime labor. That and increasing on-the-job demands have cut into the spare time Americans once dedicated to charities.

It has taken nonprofits years to acknowledge the demise of the old model. Now, many are broadening recruitment efforts to minorities, retirees, and teens. In the past five years, the Young Men's Christian Assn. of Nashville has quadrupled the number of volunteer-based services it offers--in part by wooing 500 students from nearby Vanderbilt University. Nationwide, according to Independent Sector, participation among African Americans and Hispanics has grown dramatically.

More striking, though, are the operational shifts that demographic changes have forced. Everywhere, agencies are extending hours to nights and weekends. Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America is testing mentoring arrangements that require just an hour a week of service, diversifying from a program that long has demanded at least three hours a week for a year. The Easter Seal Society of North Carolina runs board meetings by fax and teleconference so members don't have to travel. "We have to guard their time," says President Adele Foschia. "We have to listen to when and how they want to volunteer."

COMPANY BENEFITS. The demand for low-commitment, flexible service opportunities has spawned a host of such groups as City Cares of America, a network of 17 urban organizations that links nonprofits with teams of mostly young professionals. Workers attend a single after-work orientation, then select projects from a monthly listing of soup kitchens, tutoring, and the like. The only commitment required of volunteers: showing up if they say they will. "You're not confined," says Mustafa Chagal, 27, who juggles tutoring and meal deliveries with his full-time job and night MBA classes. "If you can't make it one day, you can make it another."

These same forces are driving new ties between nonprofit agencies and a swelling corporate volunteer pool. A few companies, among them Levi Strauss & Co. and General Motors Corp.'s Electronic Data Systems Div., pay employees to volunteer during work hours, through so-called work-release programs, or reward service with vacation. Many others promote and organize teams for after-hours projects, sometimes backing employees with uniforms and equipment.

The reasons aren't entirely altruistic. With employee volunteers, companies can establish a visible, positive presence in their communities at a fraction of the expense of typical corporate philanthropic gifts--which have been flat since 1991. Volunteerism can support broader corporate goals, too. Ameritech Corp. requires a half day of community service as part of a three-day management training program meant to reinforce teamwork and break down hierarchical barriers. Security Benefit Group of Cos., a financial-services outfit in Topeka, Kan., says its volunteer programs have lifted employee morale, helping to boost productivity and cut turnover.

Nonprofit groups have latched on to the growing corporate supply. The San Francisco Food Bank, which receives and distributes packaged food to other agencies, started recruiting volunteers through area employers in 1991; this year, those sources will account for half the agency's 36,000-odd volunteer hours.

FAST WORK. The problem: Most corporate programs, however well-intentioned, are equipped to take on only short-term projects, mirroring the demographic movement in the broader volunteer population. Jobs that depend on consistent, long-term commitments--say, scoutmasters or accountants--remain hard to fill. "People want to do something that's going to make them feel good quickly," says LaNay Eastman, director of community involvement for Volunteers of America's San Francisco office.

That constraint, increasingly severe, is limiting the kinds of work nonprofit groups can undertake. The drive among Americans to serve their communities remains strong, and nonprofit executives say their recruiting has attracted younger, more energetic volunteers. The price, though, may be the expertise and personal relationships that historically have sustained those agencies' most meaningful services.


How nonprofit agencies are shifting gears

BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA Its den mothers are working full-time now, so Cub Scout meetings have moved to nights and weekends. Adult leadership is slipping, forcing the New York City council to hire paid workers.

BIG BROTHERS/BIG SISTERS OF AMERICA Recruitment is up, but its target workers--adults 24 to 40--may be put off by a commitment of four hours a week. It's trying to attract older volunteers and married couples and is creating short-term mentoring programs.

YMCA "Cause" volunteering is hot. The Y is advertising issue-oriented service programs, such as an environmental corps and support groups for inner-city parents. Encourages families to volunteer together.

EASTER SEAL SOCIETY The advocacy group in 1993 began actively promoting and rewarding community service by its disabled members.

CHICAGO CHRISTIAN INDUSTRIAL LEAGUE The Midwest's largest homeless shelter aggressively courts corporations for volunteers and for participation in ventures that employ homeless clients.

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