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Extending a Hand, If Schedule Permits

A high-powered meeting this weekend will push a renewal of volunteerism

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Question: What do 93 million Americans spend 20 billion hours doing every year? No, it's not watching TV. It's not taking leisure time. It's volunteering.

More than any other society, Americans donate time and effort to churches, charities, or some of the other 1.4 million nonprofit groups in the US. It is this spirit that President Clinton, Gen. Colin Powell, and every living former president (except Ronald Reagan, who will be represented by Nancy Reagan) will celebrate and encourage in a forum that starts Sunday in Philadelphia.

But they face a challenge because the nature of America's volunteerism is changing.

In an era of dual-career families, many Americans can't find the time for intensive projects that often make the biggest difference. The change comes even as a shrinking government is asking social organizations to do more, making it difficult for charitable groups to enlist volunteers for the toughest work.

"What they're seeing today ... is more the short-term focus, in-out volunteer," says Peg Hendricks, director of Cornell University's coming conference on volunteerism. But "when you get to the one-on-one volunteering that can really change lives, the numbers really drop down," she says. "We are missing the ... beauty of voluntarism, which is the sense of ... touching an individual person's life."

Today's volunteers, "don't have time to go to the PTA meeting or League of Women Voters or Kiwanis," adds Robert Wuthnow, professor of sociology at Princeton University in New Jersey. "They don't want to get involved in something that will take over their life."

The reason? Government statistics say that today's adults are working longer hours. So, the time they spend volunteering is more for work-related and career-building organizations. And the hours they do spend on charitable projects tend to be more ad hoc and more focused on short-term goals.

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