Help Wanted More Volunteers

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LANSING — Volunteering in Michigan is becoming scarce and seems unlikely to increase soon.

A survey performed at Michigan State University showed that only one-third of the state’s residents volunteered with nonprofit groups in 2002, a significant drop from 2001 when the rate was 50 percent.

“It was certainly surprising to see that kind of drop in volunteering,” said Mark Wilson, an associate professor of urban planning at Michigan State University, who conducted the survey. “It is definitely a concern.”

Most charitable organizations rely to some extent on volunteers. A recent study performed by Public Sector Consultants Inc. in Lansing estimated that charitable organizations average 180 volunteers and almost 9,500 volunteer hours annually.

The downturn in the state’s economy is the primary culprit, but it’s hard to pinpoint an exact cause for the dropping rates of volunteers, said Kyle Caldwell, executive director of the Michigan Community Service Commission.

“The economy is absolutely devastating,” he said. “It’s a hard time for people to think about others when they have to tend to their own bread and butter.”

Caldwell added that volunteer rates are not likely to rise any time soon because the economy doesn’t look promising in the near future and because of recent accounting and embezzlement problems that the nonprofit sector has had, such as several United Way scandals.

“The economy doesn’t look like it’s coming back up, and the numbers could go down even further thanks to these accounting problems,” he said. “So, we really don’t know.”

The tough economic times certainly affect volunteer rates, but not as dramatically in areas such as Traverse City, said Mary Sue Christian, executive director of Big Brother, Big Sister of Northwest Michigan.

“In our area volunteering is really big,” she said. “It’s because of our small-town culture. We don’t get as much aid as the more urban areas do; everyone knows each other and they like to get involved.”

Christian said that while at her organization volunteer rates have actually risen by almost 40 percent in the past year, the demand has grown so much that they still haven’t caught up.

“We still have about 200 kids waiting to be mentored right now,” she said.

Wilson’s survey showed that almost 70 percent of those who had volunteered in 2002 were likely to do so again in 2003. However, the most significant drop was among those in their 20s, a critical group, Wilson said.

"This is an age where volunteerism becomes established, so it’s a concern that these people aren’t volunteering as much,” he said.

The decline in this group was felt at Grand Valley State University’s volunteer program, said Sarah Kennedy, the school’s alternative spring break coordinator. “Last year was a really bad year. We wondered where everyone went.”

Alternative spring breaks offer students the opportunity to volunteer at a variety of destinations during their spring break from school. A lack of volunteers could mean that programs such as this might not last, Kennedy said.

The high volunteering rate in 2001 can be attributed to residents inspired by the events of Sept. 11, said Sam Singh, president of the Michigan Nonprofit Association.

“There was definitely a huge volunteer spike directly inspired by 9-11,” he said. “That hasn’t stayed, though.”

The same is true for charitable contributions. Almost 90 percent of the state’s residents gave to charity right after Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, rates have dropped to around 80 percent, similar to the level of giving before the terrorist attacks.

Caldwell said Michigan residents should know that although times are tough, it’s critical to volunteer and give to charity. “We need to keep that message out there,” he said.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm has begun to recognize the efforts of the state’s volunteers through the Governor’s Service Awards program. Youths, adults, seniors, businesses, educators, nonprofit and faith-based organizations, and educational institutions will be recognized monthly for outstanding efforts in volunteering.

“She is doing well with the situation,” Caldwell said. “Let’s hope our state’s residents will do the same.”           

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