Limits evident for role of volunteerism

In the past month, thousands of Minnesotans donated time, supplies and money to victims of the Red River flood. Their efforts significantly helped lessen the damage of this natural disaster. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia this week, government leaders and celebrities met in a rare show of universal support for national volunteerism. Volunteering is in vogue, especially for politicians who hope that community service can replace cuts to social and welfare programs. This is a dangerous gamble, however, for despite good intentions, volunteers are not currently able to pick up the slack on the federal or state level.
Recent studies show that Americans already devote considerable time to volunteer work, and many are willing to do more. A poll conducted by Independent Sector, a group that studiesnonprofit organizations, found that 93 million Americans contributed a total of 20.3 billion volunteer hours in 1995. This mammoth effort is laudable and has been trumpeted by conservatives in Congress as proof that Americans are taking over responsibility for their communities from the government. The reality behind these numbers, however, shows why this army of volunteers doesn’t seem to be solving society’s problems.
First, only 8.4 percent of volunteers work in human services — the rest dedicate their time to such endeavors as ushering in theaters and leading museum tours; these are worthy activities to be sure, but with less social impact than long-term tutoring and counseling. There are also numerous questions about volunteer effectiveness. No one can deny that for short-term, unskilled projects — like filling sandbags in Fargo, N.D., or painting over graffiti-covered walls in the inner city — volunteers can be enormously effective. But at-risk children, the poor, illiterate adults, immigrants learning English and the elderly need more intensive intervention. The Corporation for National Service, for example, claims that to be effective, tutoring must be done for at least 30 minutes a session two to three times a week.
The volunteers who have time, interest and energy to tackle these intensive commitments face other problems. Social service agencies they work for are often understaffed and underfunded. No one has time or money to train them, and they are either considered unqualified and shunted into doing the dullest, most meaningless work or are given more responsibility than they can handle. Either way, they burn out quickly with little to show for their efforts.
“This is not the time to ask: ‘Is there more government should be doing or less that government should be doing?'” retired Gen. Colin Powell said in Philadelphia. Yet aside from government, there are no structures in place that could really train and organize eager volunteers into an effective force. Churches and groups like United Way are trying to do their part, and the suggestion that businesses could help arrange efforts is intriguing. But for the present, these organizations are simply not prepared to take over the social safety net the government has provided for decades. Until there are new methods for training and organizing volunteers, as well as some way of gauging their effectiveness, we must not be lulled into believing they can replace government’s role in society.