State aims to boost lagging voluntarism

Conference addresses benefits of involvement

May 04, 2001|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Maryland is one of the wealthiest states in the nation but ranks below average in the number of residents who volunteer.

The Governor's Office on Service and Volunteerism is working to change that. Yesterday and Wednesday, it helped sponsor a statewide conference at the Baltimore Convention Center, "Volunteers Make a World of Difference," to celebrate voluntarism and encourage more of it. More than 1,000 people signed up to attend.

"To continue to be a strong state, we have to be a giving state," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, co-chairwoman of the conference. "It is a key part of our democracy."

Forty-two percent of Marylanders volunteer regularly, compared with 56 percent of adults nationally, according to the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations, and 71 percent of nonprofit groups in the state report difficulties recruiting volunteers.

Nationally, civic involvement has declined, Townsend said, noting statistics from "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Communities" by Robert D. Putnam, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University:

Between 1973 and 1994, the number of people who served as officer of a club or organization fell 42 percent.

The number who attended a public meeting on a town or school issue fell 35 percent.

The number who joined a PTA has fallen by a third.

"The amount of time we spend with one another working toward a common goal or merely getting to know one another has slipped away," Townsend said. "We don't go to one another's houses as often as we did. ... We don't socialize with our neighbors, and all of this is having a disintegrative effect."

Townsend has led several initiatives to encourage more voluntarism in the state. She led an effort to implement the service-learning high school graduation requirement, unique to Maryland, and is working to launch five volunteer centers around the state.

At the conference yesterday, more than 90 skill-building workshops addressed topics from "Marketing Your Vision" to "Life After AmeriCorps" to "10 Rules of ePhilanthropy Every Nonprofit Must Know."

Globally, voluntarism is growing, said Richard Schubert, chairman of the International Youth Foundation based in Baltimore. In part, he said, that's because governments and nonprofit groups have become more streamlined.

"Increasingly, governments recognize the limits of their reach, the limits of their ability to meet the basic human needs," he said. "They have no choice but to encourage volunteering."

The United Nations, in an effort to honor millions of volunteers worldwide, has declared 2001 "The International Year of Volunteers."

Mae Chao, vice president of planning and voluntarism for United Way International, said many cultures have long traditions of helping others, as personified by Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.

But she reports a new trend to formalize voluntarism around the world, because governments are passing responsibility on to the nonprofit sector and because international companies take their first-world notions of volunteering to the third world as they expand.

Many worry about the future of voluntarism and philanthropy in a weakening worldwide economy. Speakers at the conference acknowledged that both may decline if the U.S. economy continues to falter and talked about ways to encourage giving in tough economic times.

"Our challenge is nothing less than to bring about the rebirth of community," Townsend said.

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