Issue of the Week
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23 September 02

by Matthew Schuerman

Like many New Yorkers, Lisa Orloff rushed to help when planes crashed into the World Trade Center. But for Orloff volunteering has become her life's work -- and volunteers her focus.

After cooking meals and coordinating teams to take supplies to Ground Zero, Orloff closed her sweater design business, first for a month and then for a year. She used the time to found September Space, an organization that channeled volunteers to where they were most needed and helped them cope with what they had witnessed.

"I talked with several volunteers who were ready to go home, but had no one to talk to about what they had just experienced," said Orloff. More than 1,000 people have passed through the center, which now continues its work with a series of programs.

Last year, many New Yorkers like Orloff saw a need and rushed to meet it. However, every day, in less dire circumstances, tens of thousands do the same. They mentor kids, visit the elderly, staff information booths at zoos, conduct tours in museums, clean up parks, and do office work. They help raise money for causes and donate a precious commodity -- time -- to help others. (See a sampling of New York City's volunteer coordinating centers and non-profit organizations.)

Politicians clearly recognize the collective power of thousands of hours of free labor and have tried to harness it for everything from supporting war efforts to closing the city's budget gap.

But do services reach the places in the city where the need is greatest? Is there a limit to what volunteers can be expected to do? And what, if anything, should government do to encourage people to donate their time?


Volunteering in New York goes back at least to the 19th century -- earlier, if fire brigades count. It began with people trying to reach across the class divide created by the Industrial Revolution. The Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor was founded in 1843 to visit and help poor people, according to The Encyclopedia of New York City.

During World War II, volunteering was considered an essential part of the war effort. And for much of the 1950s and 1960s, women -- who had not yet entered the workforce in large numbers -- did the everyday work of many civic and charitable organizations.

Today, an estimated 342,000 people volunteer in New York City, according to a survey by the New York City Nonprofits Project. Another 99,000 serve on boards without pay. And that does not include the tens of thousands who give their time to public schools, government agencies and religious institutions, the place where the most efforts are concentrated.

Collectively, New Yorkers contribute an estimated $2.7 billion of their time every year.

In the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 an estimated 150,000 people turned out to help. While much of that initial enthusiasm waned in the following months -- partly because the clean up required primarily professional workers -- many nonprofit agencies believe they have come out ahead.

A year after the tragedy, New York Cares, a coordinating center, has seen a 50 percent increase in participants. However, some studies suggest that the generosity of New Yorkers was already on the rise before September 11. A third of the nonprofits in the city reported an increase in volunteers from 1999 to 2001.


In 2001, 44 percent of American adults donated their time, with the average person giving 3.6 hours per week, according to the Independent Sector, a coalition of more than 700 organizations, foundations, and corporate philanthropy programs.

But the numbers may not be quite as impressive as they sound. Many Americans donate their time for a one-shot event, helping out in a local crisis, or, for example, at a park clean-up event or AIDS walk. Because of their busy schedules, people may not be available to provide help when it is most necessary, like at noon, for example, when an elderly person needs to have a hot lunch delivered.

And too often, efforts do not reach those with the greatest need.

A study in the city found that 40 percent of New York nonprofit organizations had to give up certain programs because they did not have enough help. This was particularly the case in low-income communities.

"It is very prestigious to be a volunteer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art," said Princeton University Professor Julian Wolpert, who conducted the research. But "small organizations in which there isn't the same aura or promise of benefit for the volunteer have a more difficult time attracting help."

Another study found that people are less likely to help out in schools in poor neighborhoods than in affluent areas. This factor, combined with less funding and resources for low-income schools, adds to the disparity between education in rich and poor neighborhoods.

This issue played out in New York City in 1997 when parents at relatively affluent P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village, volunteering time and money, raised enough money to retain a full-time teacher slated for reassignment and so keep class size in the school down.

Then Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew objected, arguing that allowing parents to raise funds for such key expenditures would hurt poor children whose parents could not drum up the money. With both sides vowing to go to court, Crew finally agreed to pay for the teacher out of school funds, but said he would stand by a policy that bars parents from doing too much to help their children's school.

It was the Board of Education's responsibility, he said at the time, to ensure that volunteer efforts do not "adversely affect the opportunity for equity" in New York City Schools.


Facing the worst fiscal crisis in 25 years, this year Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not ask New Yorkers to accept a big tax hike. Instead he focused efforts on what could be cut from the city budget, and then asked the private sector -- using their employees as volunteers - to help the city make ends meet.

In the corporate world, Bloomberg was known for being generous with his billions and for strongly urging his employees to donate their time and money. After taking office, Bloomberg hired Patricia Harris, who led his philanthropic efforts at Bloomberg LP, as a deputy mayor. Harris, according to reports, will help corporate and private donors direct time and money to areas hurt by the city's budget cuts.

This summer, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum also joined in and wrote an op-ed piece entitled "The City Needs Help." Gotbaum called on New Yorkers to help the city close the budget deficit -- and compensate for the lack of funding from Albany -- not by paying more taxes, but by donating their free time.

"The fiscal crisis of the 1970s brought about the birth of some of the public-private partnerships so crucial to our quality of life today, such as the Central Park Conservancy and the Prospect Park Alliance," Gotbaum, a former parks commissioner, wrote in Newsday. "Let's all get together and do it again."

However, some question whether government is the best vehicle for inspiring and coordinating service.

In 1967, Mayor John Lindsay founded the Mayor's Voluntary Action Center to coordinate New aid to areas of the city where it is most needed. New York Cares, which was founded in 1987, does much the same thing as the mayor's center, but on a grander scale. In the first five months of this year, 900 New Yorkers went to the mayor's center for an interview; in the same time, New York Cares attracted 11,500 applicants.

"We don't look to government to facilitate our volunteerism," said Ariel Zwang, executive director of New York Cares.

While politicians may try to inspire giving with speeches, they tend to let the private sector do the work, and pay the cost, of coordinating those who give their time.

The Mayor's Voluntary Action center has seen its budget cut over the years. Today, the agency's $300,000 budget is half of what it was in the Dinkins era.

"If they cut us very much more, we'll be on the street," said Harriette Heller, executive director of the mayor's center. However, Heller said she was optimistic about the current administration. "Bloomberg industries had a very large volunteer component, so I think he is very sensitive to volunteer issues," she said.


In New York City, there may be no better example of the success -- and limits -- of what volunteers can do than the city's parks.

After decades of neglect and the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the not-for-profit group Central Park Conservancy took over much of the management of the Central Park. By tapping into wealthy New Yorkers who live in the area, the conservancy has transformed Central Park from a dilapidated area that many New Yorkers feared into an international model for how a park should be run.

Today, Central Park has more than 2,000 volunteers and last year raised $290 million in private donations. The city government chips in for roughly $2 million of the park's $18 million annual maintenance budget and also provides police and road maintenance.

The model is being replicated around the city.

In the city's parks last year, some 70,000 volunteers provided a total of one million hours of work, according to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. Free labor, he said, included "people working in community gardens to ecologists in conservation projects with the Urban Park Rangers to the person who comes out every day and picks up litter."

New York City now spends less than half a percent of its total municipal budget on parks -- the lowest percentage among major American cities. Though to most people "parks" and "public" may seem synonymous, increasingly, private citizens are footing the bill -- through their donations and their time.

Some argue that the generosity of New Yorkers is not enough. While Central Park and Bryant Park have been renovated thanks to large amounts of private effort and money, many of the other 1,702 parks in New York have suffered.

"Central Park made it very, very easy for politicians to ignore the other parks," Ira M. Millstein, a former president of the Central Park Conservancy, has said. "And the nicer Central Park got, the worse the others got."

Some labor unions also complain that volunteers take jobs away from paid workers.

"Once they started to trim out people and started to cut jobs, then volunteers started to come out," said Mark Rosenthal, president of Local 983 of District Council 37, which represents city truck drivers, including many in the New York City parks. "Once the city saw it could get volunteers, they cut more jobs."


The push for volunteerism can be seen as a call to patriotic, civic, or moral duty. It can also be seen as part of the trend for the government to transfer jobs it used to do to private profit and nonprofit groups.

President George Bush responded to years of cuts in government social programs by hailing Americans as a "thousand points of light." President Bill Clinton hosted a volunteer summit in Philadelphia in 1997, urging Americans to help the nation's 15 million children in poverty. "The era of big government may be over," Clinton declared at the time. "But the era of big challenges for our country is not. And so we need an era of big citizenship."

In January, in his State of the Union speech, President George W. Bush called on all Americans to commit 4,000 hours -- at least two years -- over the course of their lifetimes to service.

The lasting efforts of these campaigns are hard to track, but the fact that every President presents his own plan points to the ongoing need to recruit new people.

President Bush's program is now stalled in Congress, and some question how effective it will be even if it does pass.

"The White House has not provided any funding or assistance to help agencies better use volunteers," wrote Susan Ellis in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. "The problem for charities is never recruiting volunteers but rather having meaningful work for volunteers to do and the support to make volunteering a productive experience for all."

And what if everyday citizens can not fill the country's unmet needs?

"We, can either say, 'I don't care what happens to people in need,' or we can make sure that we have the government policies in place to pick up the slack," Sarah Melendez, president of Independent Sector, has said.


In the event of another catastrophe, such as a terrorist attack, the government may well need to again harness the city's charitable power. With that in mind, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the New York City Office of Emergency Management have held meetings with local voluntary organizations, but would not release details of what was discussed.

As a member of the city's disaster volunteer task force, Lisa Orloff wants to make sure there is room for the type of spontaneous volunteer she once was should another disaster occur.

"My sense is that the traditional way of utilizing volunteers is to absorb them into the Red Crosses and Salvation Armies of the world," she said. "When you come to a city like New York and other cities of its ilk, we are entrepreneurial. We are going to go out there and make it happen."

But, as Orloff's work shows, simply showing up with a shovel or a casserole is not always enough. Volunteers need direction, coordination, and sometimes, emotional support. Providing all of those things can be a full time job.


  • Mayor's Voluntary Action Center mobilizes individuals and organizations to participate in activities throughout the city.
  • New York Cares creates more than 2,000 opportunities each month for volunteers to serve on different projects throughout the city.
  • Hearts and Minds has a full listing of volunteer organizations and resources for New York.
  • Points of Light seeks to enlist more people in volunteer organizations around the country.
  • Senior Corps puts the expertise and talents of senior citizens to work.
  • Volunteer America places volunteers on public lands across the United States to help preserve this nation's natural and cultural heritage.
  • Volunteer Match has a searchable database of volunteer and community service positions sorted by zip code.


  • The Activism Center at Wetlands Preserve fights for human and animal rights and environmental issues through street theatre, and nonviolent civil disobedience.
  • ASPCA of New York is a chance to help animals either directly or through fundraising and other office duties.
  • Bowery Mission serves New York City's homeless.
  • City Harvest collects food from restaurants and other food businesses and then distributes it to soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
  • Children's Aid Society of New York is devoted to helping New York's children in need, providing services on a variety of levels, from infant care to education.
  • Columbia Community Outreach is a branch of Columbia University's Community Impact organization, and seeks to unit members of the Morningside Heights community with the university through park, soup kitchen, and tutoring projects. It also coordinates with other city service entities like Habitat for Humanity, and United Against Hunger.
  • Community Service Society of New York is an organization that helps low-income families, communities and individuals.
  • Downtown Boathouse is an all volunteer organization dedicated to providing free access to the Hudson River to all residents of the city.
  • Food for Survival collects, purchases, and stores food from manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and government agencies and distributes it to community food programs throughout the city.
  • Gay Men's Health Crisis is a not-for-profit group committed to fighting the spread of AIDS.
  • Girls Write Now establishes mentoring relationships to aid young women develop their writing and communication skills.
  • God's Love We Deliver provides meals to men, women, and children living with HIV/AIDS.
  • Goddard Riverside Community Center serves thousands of people with programs from early childhood education, afterschool activities and college access to outreach to homeless people, supportive housing and programs for older adults. Click on the "SupportUs!" link for volunteer and donation information.
  • Habit for Humanity is the local chapter of the national, ecumenical Christian organization that seeks to eliminate poverty housing from the world, according to their web site.
  • Just Food is a non-profit organization dedicated to developing a sustainable food system in the New York City region by working to meet the needs of regional, rural family farms, NYC community gardeners, and NYC communities.
  • Literacy Partners Inc. teaches adults to read, write and do mathematics in tutorial and family programs.
  • MADRE is an international women's rights organization that works with community groups worldwide on issues of health, economic development, and human rights.
  • New York Cares volunteers do community service including tutoring, neighborhood revitalization, assisting people living with AIDS, and visiting the elderly among other things.
  • New York Presbyterian Hospital volunteers offer an extra dimension of care and service to the hospital staff.
  • New York Red Cross offers volunteering opportunities that range from making telephone calls to managing shelters during emergencies.
  • PowerPlay NYC seeks to encourage girls to form skills such as teamwork, leadership and respect, and to develop a sense of self-confidence, through participation in sports.
  • Only Make Believe New York is a theatrical non profit charity devoted to children in hospitals, providing an interactive theatre experience for hospital bound children.
  • Reach Out and Read to Greater New York introduces children to the world of books.
  • River Fund is an organization providing physical, emotional and spiritual support to the hungry, the homeless, children and adults living with HIV/AIDS.
  • Transportation Alternatives works with neighborhood groups and government to make streets safer by promoting walking, bicycling, and mass transit.
  • Turtle Bay Music School aims to foster love and knowledge of music through various music programs.
  • Visiting Nurse Service of New York Hospice Care works with terminally ill patients to provide comfort, foster a sense of dignity, and maximize quality of life during the dying process.
  • Volunteers of America is a spiritually based community service organization that offers a multitude of volunteer positions in rural areas and urban centers across the United States.
  • United Way of New York is addressing the health and humanitarian needs of New York City's needy.
  • YMCA is a community service organization that offers programs intended to build spirit, mind, and body.


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