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The right way to volunteer
28 August 2006
by Daniel Kadlec

The world of volunteering needs help--but not the kind you think. There are more than enough retirees looking for ways to pitch in. The problem is that too many nonprofits cling to their old ways, asking volunteers to do little more than stuff envelopes and make fund-raising calls.

Something has to give. Nearly 38 million Americans who had volunteered with a nonprofit in the past didn't show up last year, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). That is a waste of talent and desire.

The newest crop of potential volunteers--baby boomers--is the most educated and driven in history, with a volunteer rate among the highest. But many boomers plan to keep working even as they start doing community service. So their time will remain dear. Unless they feel they are making a difference, they'll walk.

Mike Benz saw that in 1995 when he took the reins at United Way of Greater Cleveland, which he says had grown sleepy and out of touch. "Our volunteers today are partners and owners," he says. "They make real decisions and have a hand in where nearly $40 million goes."

Other nonprofits are catching on, offering flexible hours, leadership roles and assignments that tap individual skills. Habitat for Humanity, whose volunteers build homes for the poor, has begun organizing worker Care-A-Vans that travel the U.S., stopping here and there to pound nails. That setup holds special appeal to those looking for adventure, physical activity and tangible results. Peace Corps Encore allows former Peace Corps volunteers to sign on for stints of just a few months rather than two years--attracting folks who have flexible jobs or sabbaticals.

Some nonprofits have replaced the old model, in which a paid manager had volunteers stuffing envelopes, with a volunteer manager who has paid help to handle mail. "Volunteers today want to be involved in something meaningful," says David Eisner, CEO of CNCS. The nonprofits get it, he says, but he adds that many "are unwilling to give up their comfort zone."

That doesn't mean you should give up your volunteer ambitions. Local nonprofits often welcome active volunteer board members; for medical professionals there's always room at the American Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders. There are growing opportunities at the local level for folks able to help with financial planning, legal counseling and small-business mentoring.

All that volunteering adds up--the total economic value last year was estimated to be nearly $150 billion--and the impact is expected to grow as the population ages. "We're less concerned about baby boomers stepping up than we are with nonprofits being ready to receive them," says Tess Scannell, director of Senior Corps.

Find an organization that strikes your fancy, she advises, and then insist on a meaningful experience. It will be good for them, for you and for the people you're trying to help.