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Volunteer Activities and Programs

Obtaining information about volunteer opportunities

Volunteering may be defined as unpaid work that is willingly performed. In the academic and professional literature, the term is usually restricted to describe unpaid work that is done for formal organizations. In some cases, the term volunteering is used more broadly to include informal assistance to neighbors and strangers or discretionary tasks performed on behalf of relatives. This discussion is concerned solely with volunteering that is done on behalf of formal organizations. In some instances the distinction between paid and unpaid work for organizations is blurred because ‘‘volunteers’’ receive some financial compensation in the form of a stipend, living allowance, or reimbursement for expenses. Some analysts resolve this issue of definition by counting all who are compensated with less than the minimum wage as volunteers; other analysts use the term ‘‘stipended volunteer’’ to identify a hybrid role that incorporates some aspects of a volunteer and some of a paid employee.

In the United States and many other countries, nonprofit organizations that rely extensively on volunteers are of great importance to community life. Churches, schools, hospitals, political campaigns, environmental organizations, community recreation, and arts organizations are prominent examples of formal organizations that make extensive use of volunteers. In some instances like contemporary hospitals and schools, volunteers supplement paid employees. In other settings such as certain churches, political campaigns, and arts organizations, volunteers outnumber paid workers. Some of these efforts are viable only because of the efforts of volunteers (Ellis and Campbell).

In the United States, volunteering is widespread. On the basis of a review of many studies of the extent of volunteering in the United States, Fischer and Schaffer concluded that, among adults, between 18 and 55 percent volunteer. (Estimates of the extent of volunteering vary greatly because of differences in the definitions of volunteering that were employed in various studies.) Typically, the time that volunteers contribute is modest—usually no more than a few hours a week.

Elders are of particularly great importance to nonprofit organizations as volunteer resources because of the major changes that have taken place in recent decades in employment patterns and longevity. The young and middle-aged married women who once spearheaded community-service volunteering are much less available as volunteers because most are now involved in extensive gainful employment. On the other hand, older people tend to be permanently out of the workforce at relatively young ages with the expectation of living in good health for many years. The young elders who are retired or working part-time have the potential to replace married middle-class women as the major volunteer resource for many nonprofit organizations (Morris and Caro).

Elders do not volunteer more than other adults. Recent surveys indicate that young elders are similar to middle-aged adults in their rates of volunteering. Rates of volunteering tend to fall off among those over seventy-five years of age. Several background characteristics have consistently been found to predict volunteering among elders. Those with higher incomes, higher levels of formal education, who are religiously active and in good health are more likely than other elders to volunteer. Those who have consistently volunteered throughout their adult lives are likely to continue volunteering. Despite the large numbers who have retired early and are in good health, there is no evidence that rates of volunteering increase after retirement. However, there is evidence that among volunteers, the number of hours per week devoted to volunteering tends to increase modestly after retirement (Fischer and Schaffer).

Altruism is a major reason for volunteering among elders. Helping others and contributing to their community are often given by elders as reasons for volunteering. Ideology or the importance of the cause are also common reasons for volunteering among elders. Volunteering that supports a religious cause is particularly common among elders. Social factors are also important; many elders volunteer to make friends and to sustain friendships. Elders are less likely than other adults to volunteer in order to develop new skills, to gain experience, or to make useful professional contacts (Fischer and Schaffer).

The circumstances that surround assignments also affect willingness to volunteer. Elders are more likely to agree to volunteer when they are asked personally to take on the assignment, when the assignment is of short duration, and when there is flexibility in scheduling. Elders also respond positively to cash or in-kind incentives. Free meals, free parking, and reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses are positive factors in recruiting and retaining elder volunteers.

Sound administration is also vital to successful deployment of elders as volunteers. Assignments must be clearly defined; responsibilities must be appropriate for the skills of potential volunteers; appropriate training and support must be provided; the volunteer effort should be recognized even if only through symbolic expressions of appreciation.

Volunteering is believed to be a potentially beneficial activity for elders (Fischer and Schaffer). Statistical evidence is available that links activity generally and volunteering specifically with health among elders (Musick, Herzog, and House). Active elders tend to enjoy greater health. While good health makes activity easier for elders, the stimulation provided by activities like volunteering may also promote good health. The intellectually stimulating aspects of volunteer assignments may be helpful in sustaining and even improving the intellectual functioning of elders. To the extent that volunteer assignments have attractive social aspects, they may be helpful to otherwise socially isolated elders in combating loneliness. The opportunity to contribute to an important cause as a volunteer may also help to give some elders reason for taking constructive steps to stay healthy.

Substantial critical concerns surround volunteering. That only a minority of elders are intensively engaged in volunteer work reflects structural issues in volunteering. Both the displacement of nonprofit organizations by for-profit organizations and the tendency in nonprofit organizations for paid employees to displace volunteers have tended to marginalize volunteers (Ellis and Campbell). Many community service organizations that began as volunteer efforts are now staffed entirely by paid employees. Typically, in community service organizations, when paid professionals have gained dominance, volunteers have come to be seen as ‘‘amateurs’’ whose skills and reliability are suspect. When volunteering is seen to be of marginal importance within an organization, little is invested in developing assignments for volunteers or in recruiting, placing, and supervising volunteers. In many organizations only nonessential tasks are left for volunteers. Frequently, these tasks are of a highly routine nature. A pattern is established in which little is asked of volunteers, and in turn, little is given by volunteers.

In some settings, volunteers have been seen as an economic threat to paid workers. In some of these cases, labor unions have raised formal objections to volunteers. Some of those with an interest in volunteering also do not want to take work away from the paid staff. Organizations address these concerns by providing assurances that volunteer assignments do not duplicate any assignments that are carried out by paid personnel. From the perspective of volunteers, the risk in measures that protect paid personnel is that assignments left for volunteers are tedious and of minor importance to the organization (Brudney).

Volunteers have fared better in community service organizations that can afford few if any paid employees. Under the best of circumstances, these organizations have sufficient resources to hire enough paid personnel to provide strong administrative support to the volunteers who carry out the service mission of the organization. Some school mentoring, youth recreation, adult literacy, friendly visiting, and information and referral programs work effectively on this basis.

Particularly at risk are organizations that face multiple diverse demands with such limited staffing that the organization relies heavily on volunteers, but volunteer administration receives insufficient attention. Among the highly vulnerable are organizations with a single paid employee whose multiple responsibilities include volunteer management.

Volunteer opportunities. Most volunteer opportunities are strictly of a local nature. Religious congregations, day care centers, elementary schools, after school programs, recreational programs for children and youth, hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, home delivered meal programs, soup kitchens, shelters, political campaigns, libraries, museums, environmental protection organizations, senior citizens centers, and small town governments are prominent among the settings in which there is demand for volunteers.

The roles that elder volunteers perform are also highly varied. Many assignments involve one-to-one service to individuals. Examples include visiting the homebound, escorting frail elders to health care appointments, tutoring children, providing information to the public about offerings of service organizations, and providing guidance to individuals on tasks ranging from tax preparation to applications for public entitlement programs. Other assignments involve assistance to groups such as coaching and umpiring in youth recreation programs, interpreting museum exhibits to visitors, and reading to young children in libraries. Assignments that take place behind the scenes include food preparation, shopping for the homebound, writing and editing of newsletters, preparation of mailings, and physical labor on behalf of civic beautification efforts.

Some volunteer opportunities are part of national initiatives. Outlined below are illustrations of these volunteer assignments. Some are explicitly for older people; others are open to people of all ages.

The Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) is one of three volunteering programs for seniors administered by the Corporation for National Service. RSVP provides varied volunteer opportunities for retirees who are fifty-five years of age and older. The specific volunteer opportunities that are available vary depending on local initiatives. Most common assignments involve assistance within multipurpose senior centers, congregate and home-delivered meal programs, hospitals, and nursing homes. Typically, RSVP volunteers contribute only a few hours a week. RSVP volunteers do not receive stipends. In 1997, the program enlisted the efforts of 450,000 volunteers at over 70,000 stations. Additional information on the RSVP program can be obtained by visiting the following Web site: www.seniorcorps.org/index.html

The Senior Companion Program is a federal program administered by the Corporation for National Service that combines supported employment with volunteering. Eligibility is limited to low income people sixty years of age and older. Senior Companions usually work twenty hours a week for which they receive a living allowance. They provide assistance to frail, community-residing individuals. Typically, a senior companion serves between two and four people each week. Senior Companions develop friendships with their clients, run errands for them, and provide transportation and escort for them to medical appointments. Most of those served are older people. In 1997, almost 14,000 people were active as Senior Companions; they served close to 50,000 clients. For additional information on the Senior Companion Program and for a listing of program sites in your state, visit the Senior Companion Program Web site at: www.cns.gov

The Foster Grandparents Program is the third federal volunteer program explicitly for seniors and is administered by the Corporation for National Service. Like the Senior Companion program, the Foster Grandparent program offers living allowances to low-income people who are at least sixty years of age and commit themselves to serving twenty hours a week. Foster Grandparents serve children and youth with special needs. The settings in which they work include schools, hospitals, Head Start Programs, and youth centers. In 1997, 25,000 elders were active as Foster Grandparents in 8,400 settings. For additional information on the Foster Grandparents Program and for a listing of program sites in your state, visit the Foster Grandparents Program Web site at: www.cns.gov

Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) provides counseling to small businesses in the United States. Both retired and working executives provide free counseling and low-cost workshops. SCORE is administered through 389 chapters. In a typical year, SCORE enlists the efforts of over 12,000 volunteers. In 1998, more than 350,000 businesses were assisted by SCORE. Though SCORE is a nonprofit, private association, it enjoys a partnership relationship with the federal government’s Small Business Administration. Additional information can be obtained by visiting the SCORE Web site at: www.score.org

International Executive Service Corp (IESC) is a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to small and medium-sized businesses in many countries. Volunteers help clients in such matters as preparation of business plans, development of marketing strategies, and achievement of production efficiencies. Some of the projects are designed to help the public sector in host countries further democratic governance. Both retirees and employed executives serve as volunteers. Most IESC projects take one to three months to complete. Each year IESC takes on approximately one thousand projects. Additional information can be obtained by visiting the IESC Web site at: www.iesc.org

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) relies on volunteers to provide staffing for a variety of programs that it has developed to help elders. Volunteers are needed, for example, to operate AARP’s Consumer Housing Information Service for Seniors, which provides information on housing options; the Medicare/Medicaid Assistance Program (MMAP), which helps older people file claims; the Supplemental Security Income Outreach Project, which helps low-income people apply for the program; the Tax Aide program, which helps people file their income taxes; and the 55 Alive/Mature Driving, which provides classes to improve the skills of older drivers. AARP has a computerized referral service that links those interested in volunteering with various programs. Registration forms can be obtained by writing: AARP Volunteer Talent Bank, Dept. NB, 601 E Street, Washington, D.C. 20049. Additional information can be obtained by visiting the AARP Web site on the Volunteer Opportunities for Senior Citizens: www.aarp.org/volunteerguide

OASIS is a private program for those fifty-five years and older that combines education with volunteering. OASIS is sponsored jointly by a department store chain and a health system. Active in twenty-six cities in the United States, the program serves 350,000 members. Volunteer opportunities are available for members in three broad categories: tutoring children, teaching in the educational program, and management of the OASIS program. Additional information can be obtained by visiting the OASIS Web site at: www.oasisnet.org

The National Retired Volunteer Coalition (NRVC) is a network of corporate retiree programs that has merged with Volunteers of America, a spiritually based national, nonprofit organization that provides diverse social services to the elderly, to families, to children and youth, to the homeless, and to those in correctional facilities. Over one hundred corporations have been a part of the coalition. Historically, each participating corporation developed its own projects, which have ranged from the development of assistive technology for those with disabilities, to mentoring school children, to serving meals to the homeless, and to raising vegetables for a local food bank. Additional information can be obtained by visiting the NRVC Web site at: www.nrvc.org

Shepherd’s Centers of America (SCA) is a faith-based national umbrella organization that coordinates nearly one hundred centers throughout the United States that are designed to meet varied needs of older people. The movement began in 1972 as a collaboration of Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant congregations. Shepherd’s Centers offer varied programs and activities that include home services, classes for intellectual stimulation, and health education classes. Participants are encouraged to engage in community service. They may serve as volunteers in the home services offered by their center such as home-delivered meals, home maintenance, and telephone reassurance. Alternately, participants can volunteer to teach in an educational program offered by their center. Additional information can be obtained by visiting the SCA Web site at: www.shepherdcenters.org

Although primarily a program that combines learning experiences with travel for mature adults, ELDERHOSTEL Service Programs now offers experiences for mature adults that combine travel and education with service. Participants travel at their own expense to a setting for a limited period of time (usually less than a week) where they engage in service activities such as assisting on an archaeological dig, protecting sand dunes on a seashore, tutoring students from an Indian Reservation, restoring natural landscapes, and identifying and counting migrating birds. Additional information can be obtained by visiting the Elderhostel Web site at: www.elderhostel.org

Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA) is an important example of a specific purpose volunteer network that serves adults of all ages and draws upon volunteers of all ages. LVA is a network of 350 locally based programs that teach both basic literacy and English for speakers of other languages. LVA provides professional training to its volunteers on teaching methods. Volunteer tutors are expected to make a one-year commitment. During that year, they typically meet with their students for 90 to 120 minutes per week. Additional information can be obtained by visiting the LVA Web site at: www.literacyvolunteers.org

The Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program is an advocacy program for residents of nursing homes, board and care homes, and assisted living facilities that relies primarily on certified volunteer ombudsmen. Ombudsmen identify, investigate, and resolve complaints that involve residents of long-term care programs. Ombudsmen also provide information to residents and the general public about long-term care services. In 1998, the program was active in 587 localities in the United States. In that year, 7,000 individuals served as volunteer ombudsmen. The program investigated 200,000 complaints and provided information on long-term care to 200,000 people. Information about how to serve as an ombudsman can be obtained from state units on aging. Or visit the Administration on Aging Web site at www.aoa.dhhs.gov for a directory of state long-term care ombudsman programs.

Information about volunteer opportunities can be obtained in various ways. Many Councils on Aging or senior centers provide information to elders about various local volunteer opportunities. Volunteer coordinators in senior centers can be particularly helpful as matchmakers when they are personally acquainted with both the would-be volunteer and potential assignments. Retirees from corporations that participate in the National Retiree Volunteer Coalition are able to obtain information about retiree volunteer programs developed through their former employers. Some newspapers regularly carry listings of volunteer opportunities. In some cases, volunteer opportunities for elders are listed separately. Nationally, the Points of Light Foundation identifies organizations throughout the country that serve as volunteer clearinghouses. These local agencies keep listings of volunteer opportunities and provide placement services for potential volunteers. A listing of local volunteer centers is available through the Points of Light Web site at: www.pointsoflight.org



BRUDNEY, J. L. Fostering Volunteer Programs in the Public Sector: Planning, Initiating, and Managing Voluntary Activities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

CHAMBRE, S. M. Good Deeds in Old Age: Volunteering by the New Leisure Class. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1987.

ELLIS, S. J., and CAMPBELL, K. N. By the People: A History of Americans as Volunteers. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1990.

FISCHER, L. R., and SCHAFFER, K. B. Older Volunteers: A Guide to Research and Practice. Newbury Park, Calif,: Sage, 1993.

MORRIS, R., and CARO, F. ‘‘The Young-old, Productive Aging, and Public Policy.’’ Generations 19, no. 3 (1995): 32–37.

MUSICK, M. A.; HERZOG, A. R.; and HOUSE, J. S. ‘‘Volunteering and Mortality among Older Adults: Findings from a National Sample.’’ Journals of Gerontology: Psychological and Social Sciences 54B, no. 3, (1999): S173–S180.

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