Seeking to serve

By Alison Lobron

 “All I wanted to do was help kids write college essays,” Julie, a 24-year-old friend, told me. “It should have been easy. But I called a few different places that do college prep stuff for kids who can’t afford to hire a tutor, and none of them could figure out how to use me.”

 Julie is, in many ways, a dream volunteer. Enthusiastic and public-spirited, she has a college degree, a job that doesn’t ask very much of her, and plenty of free time. Yet despite all that, and despite a clear sense of how and where she wants to pitch in, she isn’t doing any community service — perhaps in part because the brand of service she’s interested in isn’t the one that’s currently “in.”

Due to the 2009 Kennedy Serve America Act, and the success of programs like Teach for America, we increasingly use the term “service” to mean: Drop out of your “real life” for a year or two to build organic gardens in Newark or homes in Guatemala. What’s less sexy, yet more manageable for many, is the kind of sustainable volunteer opportunity Julie was looking for, a few hours a week integrated into the rest of her schedule.

 In theory, she has plenty of options. The state government’s website,, lists 297 agencies requesting help in Massachusetts. A search on turned up 318 in Boston alone. But there are two big obstacles keeping Julie on the sidelines.

 The first has to do with the fool’s gold nature of the Internet. Whether we’re hunting for a new house, a job, a girlfriend, or a service opportunity, the possibilities appear endless.

Who hasn’t experienced that Google-euphoria of discovering that what you want not only exists, but exists in glorious abundance? Then you realize that 80 percent of the links are broken, or that the person was posting because they might need volunteers (or a new sofa, or a boyfriend) down the road, and why not post now, since it’s free? Meanwhile, the ones that really need and know how to use volunteers are too overwhelmed with responses to get back to you. Even as the Web facilitates tenuous connections, the meaningful ones often remain elusive.

The more complex and specific problem is the number of organizations with overlapping missions that aren’t coordinating their efforts. “Boston has more nonprofits than people,” Boston Mayor Thomas Menino quipped at a recent Back Bay Association breakfast. “And,” he told me later, “none of them will talk to each other.”

According to a 2008 Boston Foundation report, Massachusetts has 36,748 nonprofits, and most are small-scale operations; over 85 percent reported income under $250,000 in 2007. Sandy Martin, who coordinates the South End/Lower Roxbury Youth Workers’ Alliance, believes the funding structure is at the heart of the problem: “Usually, the agencies need to raise all their money every year,” she says, “so it makes them feel like they’re in competition with each other. Each agency is focused on its own health and trying to balance its health against its mission. Of course, everyone who cares about youth should work together, but it doesn’t always work that way.”

Given the number of small agencies operating on a shoestring — and putting the bulk of their limited resources into direct services and fundraising — it isn’t surprising that they can’t always call potential volunteers back or determine how best to use them. Here’s what I suspect happens. Someone like Julie thinks, “Hey, I could do this better. I should start my own agency to tutor inner-city kids.” The next thing she knows, she’s trying to organize an annual gala and learn accounting. While she wants volunteers, the job of “volunteer coordinator” feels less essential than “development coordinator,” and since she can’t afford to hire both, she opts for development. So all those disappointed would-be volunteers get a brilliant idea. They think, “Hey, I could do this better…”

Or, sadder and probably more common, they give up. After all, it is easy not to volunteer. Last fall, I looked into tutoring opportunities, smugly assuming that as a former high school teacher, I’d be snapped up in a second. When I contacted three organizations, my first message vanished into the ether; the second outfit wasn’t accepting new volunteers; and the third got back to me to say my email had been forwarded to the correct contact person and I should be hearing from someone shortly. I never did.

So I put my energy elsewhere for the time being. And here I remain, with nine years of teaching experience and — despite the frustration — a continued willingness to give it away for a few hours each week.

Let me know if you can use me.

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