New York Times – Volunteers: Pro and Con

When the last of the limousines leaves Independence Hall in Philadelphia next week, after a three-day ”summit” that will bring together President Clinton, three former Presidents, 30 governors and dozens of corporate executives to praise and promote volunteer work, one impudent question may remain:

Does volunteerism really do any good?

The complicated answer, when measured in hard data and even harder experience, is something along the lines of ”yes, but.” And both halves will be worth remembering in the coming week, when volunteerism, that ancient American virtue, promises once again to be oversold by supporters and underappreciated by critics.

The contributions of volunteers are plain to see. As many as 93 million Americans donate a remarkable total of 20 billion hours of their time each year, in acts of service that enrich their communities and their own spirit. They put on bake sales, clean parks, plant trees and coach soccer teams. They can be particularly adept at meeting one-time challenges like fighting floods or feeding the victims of earthquakes and fires.

The ”buts” are less obvious.

Noble though its aims may be, the nonprofit sector, where volunteers do their work, is often a chaotic place: inefficient, underfinanced, lacking in rigorous evaluation and largely exempt from the self-policing that the market coaxes from corporations and that elections instill in government. What is more, only a small minority of the nation’s volunteers work on the gritty social problems that the Philadelphia conference seeks to address. Most gravitate toward cultural venues, like theaters and museums, and to activities in their own neighborhoods — not to the nation’s ghettos, where Mr. Clinton hopes to make an impact in the lives of two million ”at risk” youths, who are the conference’s theme.

Intentionally or not, one leading advocate of volunteerism underscored its practical limitations in an interview this week.

”I think I would be a little more intimidated about having to counsel someone who’s suicidal or taking drugs than taking someone through a museum,” said Sara Melendez, president of Independent Sector, an association of 800 nonprofit groups. ”I don’t know if I would have the stamina to work with children who’ve been abused. It might just wipe me out emotionally.”

To their credit, the organizers of the conference — the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future, which runs from Sunday through Tuesday — have not called simply for a nonvariegated rise in volunteer work. Rather, they have outlined five specific ways in which poor children can be helped: mentoring, after-school programs, health care, job training and service by the needy themselves.

And despite the star-spangled hype surrounding the Philadelphia gathering, there is reason to hope that volunteers can prove useful in at least some of those areas.

Mentoring, for instance, is one of the few categories of volunteer work that have a bit of social science on their side.

While there are hundreds of mentoring programs across the country, until recently there was little concrete evidence to show that they did much good. Then, in 1995, Public/Private Ventures, a research group in Philadelphia, published a landmark study of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, the nation’s oldest and perhaps most sophisticated mentoring effort.

The researchers followed 959 youths 10 to 16 years of age for a year and a half, and found that the youths with mentors were 46 percent less likely to start using drugs than those on a waiting list for mentors. Among minority youths, the effect was even greater: they were 70 percent less likely to use drugs.

Those in the program were also 27 percent less likely to start drinking, and a third less likely to hit someone. They skipped half as many days of school, and made small but statistically significant improvements in their grade-point averages.

Social science regarded these gains as mammoth. ”The results surprised us,” said Gary Walker, the president of the research group. ”They were really substantial.”

Even so, there are reasons to be cautious about what mentoring programs can achieve. Since the study followed the youths for only 18 months, it is silent about how they fared later. And Mr. Walker is quick to warn that other mentoring programs may not be as effective. Bad mentors can even have a negative effect, since vulnerable teen-agers will have been thrust into yet another relationship that ultimately fails.

Part of the success of Big Brothers stems from its extensive screening of volunteers, a process that can last up to a year. Currently the program has about 100,000 active mentors, and 30,000 youths on a waiting list. Any initiative that, like Mr. Clinton’s, hopes to reach two million children has to confront a difficult question: Where will the mentors come from?

A second goal identified by the conference’s organizers is to promote service among the poor themselves. And here, too, research and experience suggest that the strategy has some promise. Middle-class volunteers have long acknowledged that they gain as much as they give — and so, it seems, do needy youths.

Dr. Steven J. Wolin, a psychiatrist at George Washington University, has studied what he calls ”resilience,” those qualities that help youths at risk to overcome troubled backgrounds. And among the seven ”resiliencies” he identifies is the habit of helping others.

”They have figured out that they have to do good out in the world in order to help themselves,” said Dr. Wolin, co-author with his wife, Sybil Wolin, of ”The Resilient Self” (Villard, 1993). ”It makes them feel strong.”

Among the institutions that have drawn on that insight is Eagle Rock School, a highly regarded boarding school in Estes Park, Colo., that draws at-risk youths from across the country. While students there enjoy abundant computers and acres of Rocky Mountain splendor, they must in turn perform 500 hours of community service before graduating from the 12th grade.

”When you have done the work — paid the ‘blood tax,’ to use William James’s phrase — you speak with a different voice,” said Robert Burkhardt, the school’s headmaster. ”You speak with the voice of ownership. You own the society.”

But there is reason to question the progress that volunteers can make toward some of the conference’s other goals. While the organizers hope to advance the cause of enhancing ”the marketable skills” of the needy, for instance, most previous job training programs have shown discouraging results.

In 1994, Abt Associates published the definitive study of the Job Training Partnership Act, which had created the nation’s largest job training program. While the program produced some benefits for adults, it had no effect at all on poor youths. Those who completed the program had average annual earnings of about $4,080 in the next two and a half years, the same as a group of comparable youths who had not enrolled in the program.

Other job training studies have reached similar conclusions.

”The existing research is fairly pessimistic about direct job training kinds of efforts,” said Larry Orr, the chief economist at Abt.

The conference also aims to improve the health of needy youth. Here, too, there is reason for caution about what volunteers can accomplish. For one thing, the organizers’ specific goals seem diffuse and overly broad, ranging from increasing the number of Head Start participants to raising immunization rates. Further, health programs most often need trained personnel who can keep long and regular hours, not the intermittent aid of volunteers.

Dr. Walter Orenstein, director of the national immunization program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, said volunteer work was ”an intermediate part of the solution” to low immunization rates. ”

”At the beginning of all this, there was a healthy degree of skepticism among professionals toward volunteers,” he said. ”They tended to be a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ kind of thing.”

But he said some programs had nonetheless found ways to capitalize on volunteers. Project Child in Jacksonville, Fla., for instance, matches them with needy families that have just had a new baby. Over the next few years, the volunteer helps keep track of the child’s immunization schedule, and helps the family get to the clinic.

The other value of volunteers, Dr. Orenstein said, is a less obvious one: ”They contribute to the building of political will, because they tend to have access to local leaders, to the Kiwanis Club and the Junior League.”

In the past, Presidential calls for more volunteer work tended to bring stale, either-or debates about which was more important, government or private institutions. While some of that still echoes, the conference next week, where Mr. Clinton will be joined by former Presidents George Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford, is winning a more respectful hearing, including the covers of news weeklies. That raises the hope that a more sophisticated debate will neither exaggerate nor deride volunteerism but instead contribute to its improvement.

U.S. News and World Report, for instance, topped its cover articles this week with a provocative headline: ”Do Do-Gooders Do Much Good?” Colin L. Powell, the conference’s general chairman, quickly dismissed the question as the work of cynics, but in fact the articles were written by two certified do-gooders themselves — one liberal (Steven Waldman), one conservative (Michael J. Gerson), each willing to scrutinize volunteerism, which they both support.

Both men noted the nonprofit sector’s management problems, and acknowledged that even volunteer programs cost money. They also debated the proper role of government in raising the number and quality of volunteers.

”The problem with this stuff is that people either tend to dismiss it or go into full cheerleader mode,” Mr. Waldman, a former official at the Corporation for National Service, said in an interview. ”We were trying to get people to pay attention to how it really works.”

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