Jobless fill lull by volunteering

  • Comments
  • Print

Scott Whitsitt puts so much effort into his recordings for the Indiana Reading and Information Service that they have a professional quality.

He’ll record, edit and re-record his weekly rendition of Time magazine for two to three hours, far exceeding most volunteers’ booth time.

“I’ve been a wannabe radio announcer for years,” Whitsitt said.

Since he’s been out of work for more than a year, Whitsitt has the time to spare. He spends several hours a week at IRIS, which records news for the visually impaired at its studio inside the Meridian Street headquarters of public radio station WFYI.

“It’s just gotten tougher and tougher,” Whitsitt said of his job search, which began early in 2008 after he and his wife left the Chicago area so she could take a job in Indianapolis. “You can let it tear you apart if you don’t find something to do. Volunteering gets me out of the house, for one thing, and it gets me out of my head.”

Volunteer managers say they’ve seen an influx this year of people who’ve lost their jobs, as well as students who are anticipating a tough market after graduation. The volunteers are welcome, especially as charities themselves have fewer paid employees.

However, the recession-driven volunteers probably won’t fill every gap. Many organizations’ greatest need is an extra pair of hands to do mundane work, a reality that might disappoint professionals, and prompt them to drop out after a while.

Long-term commitments also remain difficult to fill.

“They’re hoping for that unemployment to be temporary,” said Kindra Hunckler, volunteer manager at IndyReads, where most of the volunteer slots are for one-on-one tutoring. Tutoring is a one-year commitment and requires 16 hours of training. “They’re not necessarily ready to make that commitment any more than they were before,” Hunckler said.

Inquiries surge

Some organizations are reporting such a surge of inquiries, it seems volunteerism is about to replace Colts fandom.

“In January and February, we actually had to hold an extra information session and hold some extra training,” said Shawna Sims, volunteer coordinator at the Humane Society of Indianapolis.

“We’ve been keeping up more on potato-chopping,” said Becky Fox, director of volunteers at Second Helpings, which prepares and delivers meals to schools and shelters.

Second Helpings added an extra afternoon shift in the kitchen and more driving shifts to accommodate the influx.

But some experts question whether the spike in volunteerism will last because studies show no connection between the amount of free time people have and the amount they volunteer.

That helps explain why volunteerism is low among young adults and retirees, two groups that typically have lots of spare time, said Leslie Lenkowsky, professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 26.4 percent of Americans volunteered at least once during the 12 months ending in September 2008.

The rate of volunteerism four years earlier actually was higher, 28.8 percent.

“People volunteer for a variety of reasons, but the most important is, they’re part of a social network,” Lenkowsky said. “When somebody’s unemployed, over time they start losing those connections.”

Lenkowsky was CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service (which runs AmeriCorps) from 2001 to 2003 and pushed for the government to add its volunteer survey. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has been collecting the data since 2002.

Lenkowsky reasons that, when the economy was growing, more people were employed and found personal ties to volunteering through co-workers.

Parenting is another major social connection, and that’s probably why the highest rate of volunteerism is among people ages 35 to 44, Lenkowsky said.

Following her passion

The workplace connection certainly was a factor in Nicole Roberts’ experience at Damar Services, a residence for mentally retarded teens and children.

Roberts coordinated her office mates’ volunteer outings at Damar until she lost her job in January. While delivering the bad news, Roberts’ boss encouraged her to keep up the volunteer work.

“He said, ‘Maybe this isn’t what makes you happy anymore. I’ve seen how passionate you were about getting everybody to help down at Damar,’” recalled Roberts, a 28-year-old who’d worked in insurance for 10 years.

Roberts has been helping outfit the kids for their prom, plus helping with office chores and research. This summer, she’ll go back to college to become an elementary school teacher.

“I’m doing things that make me happy,” Roberts said. “Volunteering’s something that I loved, but never had time when I worked.”

She is so thrilled with the experience, she recently called her former boss, and declared, “Getting laid off’s the best thing for me.”

Professionals might look to volunteering as a way to freshen their resumes, but that’s often not possible.

“There’s not a lot of volunteer opportunities for someone to come in and do strategic planning,” said Whitsitt, who quit his job as director of strategic marketing and business development at Follett Software for the move to Indianapolis.

Whitsitt decided to challenge himself on a personal level instead. He recently became a coach for IndyReads.

One evening a week, Whitsitt parks himself at an Indianapolis community center and coaches whoever walks in the door. Many of his students are preparing for the GED exam.

“That’s one of the things that attracted me to it,” Whitsitt said. “It gets me doing something I’ve never done before, and something I’ve never trained for.”

Whether these volunteers will stick around depends on how well the not-for-profits manage them, said Beth Gazley, assistant professor of environmental and public affairs at Indiana University.

“‘Tell me when you run out of envelopes’—that just contributes to volunteer churn,” she said. In an ideal world, organizations would take the time to find out what new volunteers want out of the experience, and find roles that suit them, Gazley said.

But most not-for-profits don’t have the luxury of professional volunteer managers. In that case, Gazley said, this is an opportune time to promote core volunteers.

“That is the first thing I would do,” said Gazley, who teaches philanthropic studies. “I would recruit my tried-and-true volunteers to handle the influx.”

One possible job, she added, could be returning phone calls, even if it’s simply to let would-be volunteers know there aren’t any jobs for them now.

Layoffs at not-for-profits are taking a toll in volunteer management, confirmed Alan Witchey, volunteer center director at United Way of Central Indiana.

United Way itself eliminated 12 positions, including one in the volunteer center.

“Many non-profits are struggling to maintain the infrastructure of their volunteer systems,” Witchey said. “It sort of creates a very complicated scenario.”

Witchey said it’s true that people who leave volunteer roles often complain about not being able to apply their higher skills. The dissatisfaction might stem in part from unrealistic expectations.

“If you’re a marketing director, and you want to volunteer at a non-profit,” he warned, “that non-profit doesn’t have the funds right now to do a marketing effort.”

And some jobs require special training.

“You can’t go in and just start counseling somebody,” Witchey said.

Witchey begs for patience among volunteers, whose grunt work makes it possible for charities to fulfill their missions.

“Those are the jobs that are very needed in this economy,” he said.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.