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Nonprofits respond to change in volunteerism

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From my perspective as a nonprofit CEO, the state of volunteerism is pretty much the same in Springfield as anywhere in the United States. It is healthy, and a high percentage of Springfieldians volunteer, yet it is changing.

At a recent teleconference for nonprofits at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, local nonprofit CEOs ranked insufficient volunteer assistance as their No. 1 issue.

This issue was ranked second by the other sites across the nation who were participating in the teleconference.

When asked to clarify "insufficient volunteer assistance," participants said the changing nature of volunteerism was more of a concern than the number of volunteers. In fact, there may be more volunteers coming on line than ever before, fueled by two emerging trends.

The first trend is that colleges and high schools across the country are beginning to require their students to perform community service, and the second trend is the availability of more senior volunteers as our population enjoys longer and healthier life spans.

While these trends will produce sufficient numbers of volunteers to overcome the dramatic drop in the traditional volunteer base of adult volunteers notably female homemakers now converted to working moms some mega-changes in the type of volunteering will be needed.

Students attempting to fulfill a community service requirement often have severe constraints on their time.

This causes community agencies to create volunteer opportunities of a different nature, to be flexible about when jobs are performed, to train the often untrained volunteer, to provide more supervision, and even attempt to inculcate a volunteer ethic if none is present.

In the future, these volunteers may increasingly request a one-time task, rendering their volunteering of little long-term value to the agency.

The participants in the teleconference felt that while implementation of these school-required community service programs may be difficult for all concerned, the effort to make it work is imperative, and agencies must shift their training and supervision to fit the new attitudes.

These programs are critical to the future of volunteerism, and schools are to be applauded for their contributions to building and sustaining the volunteer ethic.

Happily, here and across the country, there is a very active senior community, and on a national scale, this trend will be the salvation of many programs. The only negatives are that there will be fewer lift-and-tote volunteers, and many volunteers will be retirees who travel in the winter and are available only on a periodic basis.

One thing about volunteerism that doesn't change is the benefit to the volunteer. In fact, new evidence is presented on a regular basis showing that volunteerism helps us mentally and physically.

Through volunteerism we develop new skills and make career contacts, feel better about ourselves, feel needed, exercise our own sense of social values by helping those less fortunate, better understand the people and organizations we serve and better understand ourselves, and have lower stress and blood pressure levels, created by the sense of accomplishment volunteerism affords.

And now, a new benefit has emerged among young adult volunteers in the form of an organization called Single Volunteers. Started in Washington, D.C., with the premise that singles nice enough to do volunteer work might also be nice to date, there are now eight chapters with 15,000 members (most in their 30s) around the country, and start-ups in 10 other cities from Boston to Sydney.

Board and staff members of nonprofit organizations will be reacting to these trends, we hope sooner rather than later, and whether you are a student volunteer, senior volunteer, adult volunteer or adult single volunteer, rest assured that changes will take place to accommodate your needs because of the importance of your gift of volunteerism.

(Jan Horton is president and CEO of Community Foundation of the Ozarks. She is proud to be a lifelong volunteer, devotee of the arts, nature lover and environmentalist.)

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