Angling to Reel in Volunteers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joanna Carides works in advertising. She buys media for a big liquor company. She navigates Madison Avenue the way a shark works a reef, always moving, ever alert. She has scant time to help her fellow man.

Well, that's not quite true. Saturday morning, between 9 and noon, looks pretty open. She grabs her monthly calendar of altruistic offerings, an a la carte selection of selfless acts. Hmm. Rehab a home for poor people? Too cold. Soup kitchen? Did it already. Clean a park? Too far. Renovate a theater in a blighted neighborhood? Looks doable. The final selling point: free pizza.

She picks up the phone and books a date with benevolence. Saturday comes, she slips into casual clothes and spends a few dusty hours packing old seat cushions into plastic bags for delivery to an upholsterer. She is rescuing an architectural jewel from urban decay. Her contribution is appreciated, her impact is measurable. "I get a good feeling when I volunteer," she says.

Carides practices an increasingly user-friendly kind of pop volunteerism. In an era in which people have little time and seemingly less inclination to play a role in the world beyond their own piece of it, more nonprofit organizations are trying harder to make good deeds easier, more attractive, more interesting. The holiday season is the one time of year when food pantries and homeless shelters will often get more help than they need. More than ever, though, people who need people are trying crafty new ways to keep volunteers coming back long after the holiday spirit is gone with the gift wrap.

Critics say some of these efforts create more of an image of altruism than an actual impact and that their popularity gives politicians just another excuse to slash social spending. Others disagree and say such innovations can get people who are abandoning traditional institutions, from the Kiwanis Club to the Girl Scouts, back into the habit of pitching in for the greater good.

Carides, who works in New York and lives in New Jersey, is just one detailed profile in an elaborate database compiled by an organization called Jersey Cares, which sees itself as a warmhearted model for the new millennium. It is a booking agent for busy professionals with a gut-level urge to help, but no clue how. It entices new recruits with wine tastings, happy hours in Hoboken and picnics in the park, and keeps them in the fold with elastic timetables, a measure of fun and a monthly assortment of good deeds as profuse as pizza toppings.

"It's like instant Prozac," says Kadie Dempsey, the Jersey Cares program coordinator. "It makes you feel good."

Jersey Cares is an offshoot of New York Cares, which was founded by four urban professionals a decade ago. They were new to the city and felt a need to volunteer, but found that shelters and soup kitchens and inner-city schools didn't call back, or wanted daytime hours and long commitments--things more suited to stay-at-home spouses or senior citizens. They began building lists of agencies with specific needs and flexible hours, and forming their own programs at others. Now, New York Cares has 2,500 volunteers a month who pick from a 200-item menu more eclectic than the local cable listings.

Volunteer Fever Spreads Across U.S.

This concept, which has since been incorporated as City Cares of America, has spread to 26 major cities with more on the way. In Los Angeles, a chapter co-founded by actor Richard Dreyfuss is known as LA Works. It has amassed a member list of 10,000 volunteers and handles designer volunteer projects for such companies as DreamWorks SKG and Universal Studios.

Its disciples include Gov.-elect Gray Davis and his wife, Sharon, who plan to help LA Works paint murals, build planters and otherwise spruce up the Wilton Elementary School from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday as part of the inauguration ceremonies. Aides said the goal is to set a civic-minded example for Californians.

LA Works and its affiliates are notable because they are on the edge of a movement to custom-fit community involvement to people who might otherwise not bother. "We've really seen across-the-board growth," says Michelle Nunn, executive director of City Cares of America, headquartered in Atlanta.

Carides, 35, works for Grey Advertising Inc. and her account is Seagram and Sons Inc. She buys media space, including those ubiquitous Captain Morgan rum billboards. "It's stressful," she says of her job.

She saw a newsletter at her office about five years ago, when Jersey Cares was getting rolling, and started sampling things. Tutoring poor students. Wrapping gifts for children with AIDS. "It was purely for philanthropic reasons. And it's sometimes nice to meet new people," says Carides, who is single.

This year, she has gone beyond most other members by committing herself to sorting goods at a community food bank once every month, plus scheduling other volunteers for the project. And she will often surf the monthly listings for something extra to do, like she did in October, when she settled on the theater rehab in Jersey City.

She is, she says, hooked.

"Even though I work really hard, in the past four or five years my attitude has changed," she says. "I just decided I wanted to take some time out of my schedule and do something good."

A Tough Volunteer Balancing Act

The City Cares organizations select and screen charities not only on the basis of need, but on what they think the market will bear, whether it's bowling with the disabled or riding with the blind on bicycles built for two. Walking stray dogs is huge. Anything with little kids, get out the waiting lists. Nursing homes and mental institutions are tougher sells. Sometimes, they fall off the list.

"This is a constant tension within these groups, balancing volunteer interests with community needs," Nunn says. "It's a great thing to paint a mural at a school, but it's not going to change the reading scores, necessarily."

New York Cares uses sophisticated computer programs to do such things as track the progress of responses to more than 15,000 kids' letters to Santa Claus. Or find out which volunteers have a tendency to take on which tasks where, and how often. It can separate the weekend warriors from the relative few who increasingly want more.

"It's very, very clever what they've done," says Susan Chambre, a sociologist at New York's Baruch College who has studied volunteerism. "There is not an ongoing sense of responsibility. There is a lot of interest in this one-shot, one-day, make-a-difference day."

Is that bad? On one hand, people get a taste of volunteering and sometimes enlarge their commitments. On the other, she said, it gives them a false impression that they have done more than they have.

A new book, in fact, argues that volunteerism has become a "moral safety valve" for a society that has slashed welfare spending and widened the gap between rich and poor. Janet Poppendieck, author of "Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Welfare" and a sociologist at New York's Hunter College, says volunteerism that treats the symptoms of a society's ills is taking the pressure off government to solve the source of those problems.

Poppendieck also says volunteerism has become something of a status symbol, a badge of honor among the privileged classes.

Organizations like City Cares, she says, are "part of a larger phenomenon in which a great deal of charitable activity and efforts to address poverty are to some extent driven by the agendas of the privileged." She says most donated food, for instance, is unsold surplus that corporations need to dump somewhere.

If that sounds like a demoralizing holiday message to send people--that helping out in a soup kitchen only makes things worse--Poppendieck, a self-described perennial volunteer, says she herself struggles with the dilemma. The danger comes when people think taking part in a walk-a-thon relieves them of what she says is their duty to, say, fix school systems or make sure people earn a livable wage.

Yet others argue that even "volunteerism lite" contributes to community building. Some experts believe that designer charities like City Cares are the precursors to the new institutions that will supplant the fading Rotary Clubs of an earlier era.

"I just think it's a great movement," says Virginia Hodgkinson, director of the Center for the Study of Voluntary Organizations and Service at Georgetown University. "They have attracted a population that probably wouldn't have been attracted."

She thinks it's influencing other agencies. The Girl Scouts, for example, now have multiple scoutmasters sharing troops and alternating weeks of responsibility. The United Way is promoting one-shot "days of caring" aimed at broad numbers of people.

"The smart organizations have figured it out," Hodgkinson says.

Experts disagree on whether community service is down or up or holding steady in recent decades, or being reinvented in a way not yet fully recognizable. The City Cares organizations have grown rapidly against a backdrop of debate over whether Americans are increasingly isolating themselves from their communities. From voting rolls to service clubs to membership in the PTA, public participation by some measures is down.

The debate climaxed last year with the Summit for America's Future in Philadelphia, which included Gen. Colin L. Powell, President Clinton and former Presidents Bush, Carter and Ford.

Some experts see anecdotal evidence of a recent spike upward in volunteerism. More corporations are offering team-building volunteer programs to employees--60% of New York Cares volunteers come from corporate sources. And volunteerism has become commonplace in high schools and colleges. Most Los Angeles County high schools offer volunteerism programs, and the majority of private schools and a third of public schools require "mandatory" volunteering--the ultimate in oxymorons--to graduate, says Richard Sundeen, a USC researcher.

In 1996, a Gallup Poll commissioned by Independent Sector, a Washington philanthropic booster group, found that one out of every two Americans had volunteered the previous year, though the definition was loose enough to include mowing the lawn for the rich old lady next door. Many people are awaiting the results of the next poll this spring to see where those numbers are moving.

While the left and right fight over whether volunteerism should complement or supplant taxpayer-financed care for the less-fortunate, some people don't want the issue on anybody's agenda. The Ayn Rand Institute, which promotes the beliefs of the late author--that society would be better off if everybody followed their own self-interest--has been campaigning against the very concept of volunteerism. The Marina del Rey-based institute offers internships to students so they can try to fulfill their school's volunteerism requirement, by volunteering to fight volunteerism.

More pragmatic types are trying to tinker with concrete ways of keeping an affluent, largely contented society engaged with the needs of the less-fortunate minority.

At Chicago Cares, only about 20% of the 5,000 people in its database volunteer regularly, so it has instituted a "frequent volunteer card" that gives people a chance to win free airline tickets. To get people to tutor elementary school children in rough sections of Chicago on Saturday mornings, Chicago Cares books a school bus to shuttle volunteers and plies them with coffee and biscotti donated by Starbucks. "Convenience is important," says Executive Director Mary Prchal.

And though LA Works has a volunteer list of 10,000, only about 600 volunteer monthly. A couple hundred others volunteer through corporate programs, the charity says.

The group constantly has to stage fun new programs--anything with kids or animals is big--that get people in the door. Yet it is also putting more emphasis on retaining people by increasing reading and environmental cleanup programs that require volunteers to make three-month commitments. "We have to pay attention to both tracks," says LA Works co-chairwoman Donna Bojarsky.

Seeking to expand its appeal to adults with kids, LA Works has begun labeling some projects "FF"--for "family friendly"--to hopefully create habit-forming alternatives to family trips to the mall.

At Jersey Cares, the staff promotes "pet therapy" programs in which people can take their dogs to visit nursing homes, an icebreaker for folks who love animals but shun the warehoused elderly.

Yet sometimes nothing works. The group had no luck getting volunteers to visit the sometimes-diapered adults in the state-run North Jersey Developmental Center for severely mentally and physically disabled people. "We wrote in the description: 'This is not a project for the weak,' " says Jersey Cares staffer Ron Miller. "But our volunteers didn't bite on it."

The project was dropped, a disappointment to Dolores Cattiny, the center's volunteer services chief. But she says nothing would be worse for her wards than if somebody visited only once or twice, then never returned. "Many of those [volunteers] are looking for a one-shot deal," she said.

Yet Cattiny says she, too, has tailored programs after deciding to "take the pulse of the community and see where the interest lies."

Among the ways she is enticing people to at least spend some social time with the seriously disabled: a visiting pet program. There is, she says, a waiting list.

Times researcher John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this story.

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