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Volunteers Aren't Just a Pair of Hands Anymore

Non-profits want skilled people helping out

By Encore.org | June 22, 2012

Whole regions are organized to reduce their energy consumption and improve their environment. Whole communities are engaged in healthy behaviors. Older adults live at home rather than in institutions because they have the help they need. Young children enter school ready to learn. Every immigrant is able to become integrated into the community and become economically successful, is able to speak English and is on the road to citizenship. --The American Way of Change

Sounds idyllic, no? Shirley Sagawa thinks it can happen, and she should know.

Dubbed the "founding mother of the modern service movement," Sagawa has been a leader and adviser to several presidential administrations on national and community service. And in her new book, The American Way to Change, she lays out a blueprint for how the kind of nation described above can become a reality.

The book provides a rapid tour through the history of the American service movement and an overview of the current landscape. It's an invaluable reference tool for people who want to understand how they can serve, nonprofits that want to make smart use of volunteers and even for-profit entities that want to mobilize their workforce around a volunteer effort.

Sagawa also includes a handy section on high-impact service programs that includes Civic Ventures and one of our earliest initiatives, Experience Corps.

Here’s an abbreviated version of a conversation with Shirley Sagawa and Encor.org's Marci Alboher:

Q: Throughout the book, you write about the value of service for people going through life transitions. Can you talk specifically about the role service can play for those leaving a long-term career?

A: People leaving a long-term career are a little like adolescents, thinking, "What do I really want to be?" Sometimes they are not necessarily looking for monetary benefits of future work, but also what's going to be personally fulfilling. What's great about service is that you can set your own terms, from a few hours a week to almost full time. And you can break into a field that you might have been interested in. If you worked in an office your whole career, service can be a chance to get outside. So it's a combination of psychological factors, of moving on to the next thing, as well as the social or mental health need of staying connected to the world, to other people and continuing to learn. All of that exists in service work.

Q: Should people think about service or volunteering as a pathway to paid social purpose work?

A: Yes. It's a good strategy for people at all ages. Say you have wonderful experience as a person who's gone through many years of being in the work force. But perhaps you are missing skills in a field you're interested in. Taking on a serious volunteer opportunity can give you a chance to try something out, make contacts or build your resume in a way that you'd need to do when applying for a paid position.

Q: Lots of people get turned off to volunteering because they think it's just going to be stuffing envelopes. What do you say to them?

A: The volunteer world has changed so much. The days when the only roles for volunteers were licking envelopes are over. There is a huge need for skills-based volunteering, which you can see from organizations like the Taproot Foundation, which focus on bringing higher-level skills to organizations. A nonprofit should have a good description of the work volunteers will be doing. And you should be sure to ask what you'll be doing, whom you'll be reporting to, how you'll be evaluated and how you'll be able to share ideas if you have them.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in getting people over 50 involved in service or volunteering?

A: There are still a lot of stereotypes about volunteering on both sides and about older volunteers as well, so it's important to get examples out there. A lot of volunteers might be reluctant to step forward and a lot of nonprofits might not know where to go to recruit serious volunteers. We need to invest in systems that both recruit and match.

Q: How do you think the recession has affected volunteering and service?

A: It's certainly made full-time stipended positions tremendously oversubscribed. It's also increased informal volunteering, with people helping others, but not necessarily in a formal role. It's also put a lot of strain on organizations that meet basic human needs. So that's created demand for volunteers at the same time as organizations need financial resources. For a lot of organizations it's created an eye-opening experience about how to think differently about both how to get the work done and how to put to good use the great numbers who want to volunteer.

This article was originally published by Encore.org on May 17, 2010.