More Than Licking Envelopes

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 3, 2008 | Go to article overview
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More Than Licking Envelopes


Byline: Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Two years ago, Nick Cotter retired as a senior executive at Exxon Mobil. Before retirement, he had managed activities in nearly 200 countries. Yet when he volunteered for a local nonprofit, his role was restricted to sorting food and "lugging boxes around."

Confident he had the energy and experience to have a greater impact on those in need, Mr. Cotter started exploring other ways to help. He got tapped into Greater DC Cares, an organization that coordinates volunteering and business philanthropy in the District.

With the organization's guidance and support, Mr. Cotter came up with a game plan to develop a set of governance workshops for area nonprofits, drawing on his years in the for-profit sector. Based on a successful pilot program last year, he is scaling up the program through a network of fellow executive volunteers who serve as management coaches and mentors to local nonprofit leaders.

Alas, stories like Mr. Cotter's are too few and far between.

A recent study by the Corporation for National and Community Service found that one out of three volunteers don't return to volunteering because they don't feel they are having any real impact. Also, many of the volunteers who are sticking it out are getting stuck in menial tasks that fail to harness their professional talents.

The nonprofit sector is notoriously stretched thin. At the same time, approximately 8,000 to 10,000 baby boomers are turning 60 every day and heading shortly thereafter into retirement. Yet while this "third age" is marked by increasing health and longevity, service to the community is in decline in this age group.

So many unmet needs, so many untapped volunteers.

Why?

Social entrepreneur Marc Freedman, founder of Civic Ventures, believes retirees traditionally haven't formed clear visions of how to get involved productively in their communities. This is new territory for most folks, and retirement can quickly become, in the words of cultural historians Harry Moody and Thomas Cole, "a season in search of a purpose."

Compounding the problem is that America's nonprofit sector is woefully underprepared to mine the deep reserves of experienced human capital. Nonprofits typically either neglect to have any formal volunteering program or treat volunteers like Nick Cotter as unskilled labor fit only for sorting food, picking weeds or licking envelopes for mailings.

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