This Week's Herman Trend Alert

Leadership in Normal 2.0

  The Herman Trend Alert

April 22, 1998:

Where Have All the Volunteers Gone?

For generations the American culture has had a strong foundation in volunteerism. Neighbors volunteering to help neighbors—locally and nationally, even internationally—on an individual or organized basis. People found the time to lend a hand to make their part of the world a better place.

As observed by de Toqueville ‘way back in the early days of our country’s history, Americans have a penchant for joining organizations. Most of these organizations were volunteer groups, ranging from quilting societies to fire departments to militia units. As years passed, more groups were formed—Rotary, Jaycees, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and religious organizations. Service to others was a central principle inspiring people to join, become involved, and take action.

Banding together with others for common good was a comfortable, community sort of activity. People would find time in their lives to participate in volunteer groups. The involvement felt good, it was sort of expected, and it provided a significant part of the social life of the community.

Then came the distractions. Television. Computer games. The internet. Intensifying expectations at work. Increasing commitments to time-consuming errands to support children with busy schedules. Longer commutes to get to work. Each of these demands on time pulled people away from desired involvement in volunteer activities—as desired by the people running those activities . . . as well as, quite often, the beleaguered people who simply didn’t have time for all the things they wanted to do.

The problem will become more serious. Our expanding economy has drawn more people into the workforce, for longer hours. Although some statistics claim our average work week has dropped to about 37 hours, others assert that 42 hours is more realistic. Anecdotally, a lot of folks we talk with—particularly those who would like to be more involved in volunteer activities—working only 42 hours a week is a goal to be pursued!

Leaders of volunteer groups and movements will have to become more creative to attract and hold the people they need to achieve their objectives. Even the Census Bureau, which pays enumerators, is facing a major challenge of hiring short-term or part-time people to count heads in the trial censuses this year. Nashville, at full employment, worries about finding people to re-build after the recent devastating tornado.

The solution? Look for volunteer organizations to become more active in recruiting, while substantially improving the training of their leaders. If volunteers don’t feel good about what they’re doing—supported, well-led, and appreciated—they’re gone! Community fire departments, youth programs, military reserves, the Red Cross, and festival groups will all have to change their ways to attract and hold volunteers. The face of volunteerism will change adding value, while becoming more deliberate and more professional.

© Copyright 1998- by The Herman Group, Inc. -- reproduction for publication is encouraged, with the following attribution: From "The Herman Trend Alert," by Joyce Gioia, Strategic Business Futurist. 336-210-3548 or To sign up, visit The Herman Trend Alert is a trademark of The Herman Group, Inc."

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