What would motivate you to volunteer? "Someone just has to just ask me!"


By Lynn Litterine '96

As late as the 1970s, volunteerism was the only "work" in which many educated women could exercise their considerable talents. Now that many women are not only able, but compelled by family finances, to work for pay, do they continue to volunteer, and if so, why? Over two decades of study, Norah Peters-Davis, Ph.D. '88, has been tracking motivations and affiliations by gender, age and class.

She began studying volunteerism after completing her master's degree in sociology at Bryn Mawr's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1984. Peters-Davis, then Dempsey, had written her master's thesis on the use of leisure time. "At that time, middle-class and upper-class women were returning to work in larger numbers," she says. "They had traditionally been our volunteers. This was happening at a time when we were losing government money in the social service sector. I thought that intersection would provide a good dissertation topic."

Peters-Davis pursued her research in a venue where she was already working as a volunteer herself. She offered to computerize 2,000 alumnae questionnaires sent out by her alma mater, Rosemont College, in return for the use of the data in them for her research. When she sent out her follow-up questionnaire, all 200 people who responded were volunteers.

She received her doctorate in sociology from Bryn Mawr in 1988. Her dissertation topic was "Women and volunteerism: an examination of the changing patterns, types and motivations." She has been studying volunteers ever since.

"The dissertation looked at losing a whole pool of people," she says. There were three conclusions she identified then that remained true in later research as well. First, volunteerism is hard to define and measure.

"What do we mean when we say 'volunteer'? Are we talking about someone who raises funds on an AIDS walk, or someone who puts in lots of participation over a year?" she asks. "Even if we agree on how much time we mean, studying only organizational volunteering means we don't see underrepresented groups. For example, since the Civil War, the African American community in Philadelphia has been very active but not in formal organizations."

Altruism and self-interest
Second, people initially volunteer out of self-interest, not out of altruism.

"Altruism is not the central point," Peters-Davis says. "People volunteer for job skills; they volunteer to get out of the house or to meet people. My daughter volunteers a lot in New York City where she lives, and she gets huffy when I say this. But I say, 'So what? You could have just joined a golf club to meet people. Instead, you're helping people.' But it's the pleasure you give yourself that first gets you out the door."

Her third conclusion is that volunteers most often come from families with a tradition of volunteering. In her office at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA, where she is Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Faculty Development, Peters-Davis has a plaque honoring her father's volunteer work for the United Way. She herself has done fundraising for Rosemont College and worked on its alumnae board and capital campaign. She did the usual elementary school volunteering when her daughter was small and volunteered at the national level in amateur figure skating, an interest begun when her daughter skated competitively.

"Actually, one of the thoughts that moved me toward my doctoral thesis topic was the realization that I'd have less time for volunteering after graduate school," she says.

Older and able
In her first job after graduation at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center, Peters-Davis was able to look at a different group in the population, and one that was a rapidly growing pool of potential volunteers. With funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, she studied why people 65 years old and up volunteer.

"This was a new group that was more physically healthy and capable at 80 than it had been in the past. They were living longer, and they were idle," she says. If organizations, agencies, and institutions were to make use of those idle hands, they needed to know what would motivate this population to volunteer. The conclusions discussed above, such as self-interest, certainly played a part.

"It's pleasant; I meet other men there," one elderly man told an interviewer. He felt lonely and wanted companionship, the interviewer had noted. "I love what I'm doing," another said, then went right on to explain, "The main reason is depression."

Peters-Davis also found that older people were more likely to volunteer if they had been volunteers when they were younger. The development of lifelong habits of volunteering are the value of programs like America's Promise, she says.

"I'm not so hot on high school graduation requirements for volunteerism," she says. "After all, what is mandatory volunteerism? But the cultivation of a habit of volunteering is worthwhile."

Older people who had not done so in the past were more likely to volunteer if they were made aware of the opportunities that were open to them.

As one elderly man told interviewers when asked what would motivate him to volunteer, "someone just has to ask."

Gender differences in volunteering remain stable among older people, Peters-Davis says, but are changing among younger ones. Men traditionally volunteered in their business associations, women in community organizations, she says.

"The participation rate was about dead even. But the gender split between affective organizations, those that emphasize community connectedness, and feeling good, and instrumental organizations, those that are goal-related, is shifting," she says.

People also are working for pay to a later age.

"We will probably soon need to shift the data to 70 plus, rather than 65 plus," Peters-Davis says. "People are working later, but it varies by social class. You can still be a professor at 80, although you can't necessarily be a pipefitter."

Social class is important because higher income has also traditionally been a predictor of volunteer activity. But, Peters-Davis says, this is another instance of the difficulty in measuring volunteerism.

"That correlation has turned up since the 1940s, but only those with enough resources to be associated with organizations get counted, unlike the woman who babysits for free in her neighborhood."

Long-term needs, no time
In addition to working for pay later into their lives, today's volunteers work a less standardized day, and those who seek their help need to adjust to this or seek retired volunteers.

"The needs of agencies don't always fit the lifestyles of volunteers," Peters-Davis says. "We don't have 9-to-5 jobs anymore. People take their laptops camping with them. They travel for work. Today, it's easier to fill short-term, one-shot volunteer tasks. This is not necessarily what agencies need most."

Some institutions have added perks to make volunteering more attractive. "Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City provides free medical care for their volunteers," Peters-Davis says. "Another agency might provide a van to transport volunteers from their homes."

Lastly, a volunteer must feel philosophically comfortable with the organization where she or he works.

"My mother taught Sunday school for the Methodist Church," Peters-Davis says. "They said she could only use their lesson plans, but she liked to ask people to design their ideal church, for example. She stopped volunteering there."

There is good news in general for those who rely on volunteers, according to Peters-Davis. "Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone describes how the United States has changed from the nation of joiners described by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s to a society where Americans join fewer organizations, vote less, give less and trust less," she says. "Only volunteerism remained steady over the years."

Volunteerism rates in the United States peaked immediately after the events of September 11, 2001, as they tend to do after national tragedies, but it remains to be seen if they will be sustained as they were by the generation that lived through World War II.

In his 2002 State of the Union address, President George Bush reframed his campaign for volunteerism, previously presented in terms of faith-based charities, as a civic movement and as an education, poverty-fighting, and foreign aid program. Bush not only announced the creation of USA Freedom Corps, which includes community service programs related to homeland defense, but pledged to expand existing volunteer programs such as AmeriCorps, created by President Bill Clinton, and the Peace Corps, created by President John F. Kennedy. Bush's father proposed his own plan for "A Thousand Points of Light" during the Gulf War. "I flashed back to the number of State of the Union speeches in which I have heard this," says Peters-Davis. "It keeps coming up in the national agenda because it's one of our core values." Whether massive citizen action will be matched by political and societal commitment remains to be seen.

Those interested in reesearch data on volunteerism should consult The Independent Sector at www.indepsec.org. Energize, an international training, consulting and publishing firm that specializes in volunteerism, has a series of manuals on volunteerism available at www.energizeinc.com. Energize also produced a history of volunteerism in the United States, By the People.

Endless routes for Bryn Mawr volunteers
The chief attractions of volunteering forBryn Mawr are contact with other alumnae/i, the desire for intellectual stimulation, gratitude to the College, and a strong desire to support women's education, according to research conducted by the Alumnae Association's Strategic Planning Committee on Volunteer Recruitment and Management.

"Perhaps the most unique thing about this committee is that it was the first Alumnae Association group in history to conduct almost all of its business electronically," says committee chair Susan A. Messina '86, M.S. S. '91, M.L.S.P. '92. "E-mail made it possible for me to send regular bulletins, for committee members to engage in ongoing dialogue, for drafts of survey instruments to be edited, and for results of key informant interviews and focus groups to be shared immediately."

Alumnae said that the main reason they volunteered was because they were asked-and the main reason they didn't volunteer was because "no one asked."

In response to this and other findings of the planning committee, the Association has created a leadership development plan to address the recruitment, training, transition and recognition of volunteers as well as the appropriate scope of each job. "Our challenge is to set up a mechanism that ensures we reach out to as many alumnae/i as we can, identify their interests, get them involved and, over time, help them move into other areas," says Janet Steinmayer '77, chair of the Association's Nominating Committee and one of the architects of the plan.

"Under Janet's leadership, the Alumnae Association has worked hard to attract a more diverse pool of volunteers representing a broad range of affinities, ages, ethnic backgrounds and geographical locations," says Executive Director Wendy Greenfield. "We have also revamped job descriptions to provide more rewarding volunteer experiences, particularly to create opportunities for jobs, such as on taskforces, that are time-limited with specific goals."

The planning committee found that alumnae are attracted to volunteer positions that draw on or enhance their professional expertise. "People can use a volunteer experience to learn new skills, such as public speaking or fundraising, that they can't try or perhaps don't feel comfortable trying in their professional lives," says Steinmayer. "I think this will increasingly become a reason for volunteering."

The governing body of the Alumnae Association, the Executive Board, consists of four officers and 10 program representatives who set policy, conduct strategic planning and oversee finances. (Alumnae Association programs include admissions, class activities, the graduate schools, the Annual Fund, the career network, and the Alumnae Bulletin.) Members of the Nominating Committee, alumnae/i from different geographical areas, identify candidates for the Executive Board and other offices.

The volunteer leadership plan calls for geographic-, class- and listserve-based recruiters who refer interested alumnae/i to the Executive Board members in charge of a program or to club presidents. Board members will help develop job descriptions in their program areas and conduct exit interviews with volunteers who have finished their terms. The Nominating Committee is also reaching out to alumnae/i who have served in less traditional volunteer capacities-on panel discussions and search committees, mentoring undergraduates or providing externships. A taskforce convened this spring will explore ways of developing networks with a more professional focus for career women. Taskforces on volunteer recognition and communications also will be convened. The Alumnae Association is publishing a brochure, which will be sent to all alumnae/i this summer, that describes the structure of the Association, the many kinds of volunteer opportunities and how to get involved.

Even before they graduate, Mawrters can serve on the Alumnae-Student Committee, which plans on-campus events that introduce undergraduates to local alumnae/i and to Association programs. Alumnae/i often begin to volunteer for Bryn Mawr in area-based roles (club and regional activities, admissions recruiting, career network, bookstores and Alumnae Regional Scholarship fundraising), in class-based roles (President, Class Notes editor, Reunion managers, Annual Fund, Deferred Giving and Reunion Gifts), and on panels, taskforces and standing committees such as the Bulletin Editorial Committee or the Finance and Audit committees.

Alumnae often ask, "How do I get to be a Trustee of the College?" Each year, the Alumnae Association nominates a candidate for election to the College's Board of Trustees for a six-year term. (Every sixth year, the candidate must be an alumna or alumnus of the graduate school of Arts and Sciences or of Social Work and Social Research and must not hold an undergraduate degree from the College.) Criteria for these nominees include other service to the College, significant financial contributions relative to the candidates' financial circumstances, and evidence of skills necessary to be effective on a Board of Trustees and to support the College's strategic plan. (Other potential candidates for the Board are nominated by its own Committee on Trustees. A substantial proportion of other trustees are also alumnae.)

"There is no single path or hierarchy, but many routes to serve the Alumnae Association and Bryn Mawr," says Steinmayer. "You just can't point to one alumna and say that's the paradigm for volunteering for Bryn Mawr." (For more information, please call Cynthia Washington at 610-526-5233.)

Activism, advocacy and social change: a doorway to the world for students
"We don't run things; we support students who do," is the motto of Bryn Mawr's Community Service Office, says director Jennifer Nichols.

The CSO connects students and student groups to the community, resources and one another. Freshmen, along with their customs people and faculty and staff mentors, are introduced to service and activism through Owls on the Prowl, a workday held during orientation week. CSO also holds monthly community service workdays; annual service and activism events; and regular training, orientation and reflection activities.

Through Bryn Mawr's Praxis Program, students may take courses that combine classroom study with fieldwork. If students want to volunteer or apply for community service with an organization after their Praxis experiences there, Bryn Mawr continues to provide or reimburse them for transportation, which Nichols says is very unusual, perhaps unique to Bryn Mawr.

"It's also important for students to go out and volunteer on their own through an organization in the surrounding community," Nichols said. "In the real world, they won't have campus support. The realizing and articulation of field experience as both giving and receiving needs to take place. They have to learn from someone who may not have a college degree but valuable life experience; vice versa, others may learn what Bryn Mawr's academic programs have to offer the community.

"One of the exciting things about Praxis and CSO is we are moving in the direction of partnerships with communities, particularly organizations in Lower Merion Township and Overbrook," Nichols said. "This is new and the big trend in the region for service in general."

Students may do summer volunteer internships through the College's centers as well as programs such as the Summer of Service and The Harris Wofford Summer of National Service. Students on financial aid may tutor elementary school children as their campus jobs.

"CSO is many things to the different students who pass through our doorway to connect to the world around us, but they all share conviction and a genuine desire to do good work," Nichols says.

Studying public reponse to 9/11

My sense of time after September 11 is confused, so I'm not sure what day it was that I heard from Monica Schoch-Spana '86, one of my Customs Group buddies who continues to be one of my closest friends. Both of us have had a particularly intense connection to the events of 9/11 and thereafter: I had worked at 2 World Trade Center since 1997, with a non-profit research organization. Monica, a cultural anthropologist (Ph.D. Johns Hopkins '98), is a Senior Fellow with the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies. Monica somehow managed to penetrate the barrier created by intermittent telephone service and non-stop calls of concern. Amidst sharing our great shock and grief and relief, Monica told me about her observation that "the public" in the official biodefense literature behaves very differently from the public we all saw responding to the catastrophic attacks on 9/11. "Where's the stone-throwing, panic-stricken mob?" she asked in her wry, Monica way.

"We don't have language for what's going on right now," Monica said. In that first week, there were hundreds, then even thousands, of stories about "heroes," but nothing that properly captured the fact that the profound need to do something helpful in the wake of disaster is a collective, social response-not just a function of "good individuals." She has named this the "positive organic response of a community," and asked if I wanted to help her study it in New York. I jumped at the chance-and not only because I wasn't really sure yet if I still had a job! It gave me my own opportunity to do something useful in response to this disaster, and to work on a team directed by my dear friend, to boot.

On September 20, Monica and I met in New York with the other two members of the research team: Dr. Gigi Kwik, an immunologist with the Center, and Onora Lien, a sociology doctoral student at Johns Hopkins. For the next few days, we walked around New York observing and talking to volunteers. Our goals were to document the range of tasks that lay people were handling in this crisis, and learn what we could about whom exactly the volunteers were and how they came to be helping in this way. We even squeezed in a bit of genuine participant observation, taking part in a midnight shift feeding relief workers out of tents at the Jacob Javits Center.

Everyone by now is familiar with the massive outpouring of goods and services in the wake of the September terrorist attacks. Since it took a few days to get the professional disaster relief operations in place, self-organized groups of volunteer "first responders" largely managed the initial relief and rescue efforts. In addition to the thousands of individuals who came to offer aid and support, we documented the relief activities of church groups, small and large businesses, tenant associations, labor unions, professional societies, and others. We watched as public employees achieved miraculous feats through creativity and almost endless overtime (e.g., a newly-revised, color-printed subway system map had been available on 9/15, and was distributed at dozens of major subway stations by transit workers doing volunteer overtime).

The research is still underway, but has already borne some fruit. Preliminary findings were incorporated into a report in the December 3, 2001 issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases, which lists guidelines to improve planning for and the response to release of a biological weapon by increasing the involvement of the public: 1) Recognize that panic is rare and preventable; 2) Enlist the general public as a capable partner; 3) Think beyond the hospital for mass-casualty care; 4) Provide information, which is as important as providing medicine; and 5) Assume that the public will not take the pill if it does not trust the doctor. The full article is available online at www.journals.uchicago.edu/CID/journal/home.html. The Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies operates an award-winning website which is an excellent source of information about bioterrorism for policymakers, health professionals, and the general public: www.hopkins-biodefense.org.

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