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Angling to Reel in Volunteers

COLUMN ONE

More and more groups are offering professionals a taste of sweet charity. But organizations must flex their creative muscles to maintain and retain the interest of their recruits.

December 31, 1998|MARK FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Joanna Carides works in advertising. She buys media for a big liquor company. She navigates Madison Avenue the way a shark works a reef, always moving, ever alert. She has scant time to help her fellow man.

Well, that's not quite true. Saturday morning, between 9 and noon, looks pretty open. She grabs her monthly calendar of altruistic offerings, an a la carte selection of selfless acts. Hmm. Rehab a home for poor people? Too cold. Soup kitchen? Did it already. Clean a park? Too far. Renovate a theater in a blighted neighborhood? Looks doable. The final selling point: free pizza.

She picks up the phone and books a date with benevolence. Saturday comes, she slips into casual clothes and spends a few dusty hours packing old seat cushions into plastic bags for delivery to an upholsterer. She is rescuing an architectural jewel from urban decay. Her contribution is appreciated, her impact is measurable. "I get a good feeling when I volunteer," she says.

Carides practices an increasingly user-friendly kind of pop volunteerism. In an era in which people have little time and seemingly less inclination to play a role in the world beyond their own piece of it, more nonprofit organizations are trying harder to make good deeds easier, more attractive, more interesting. The holiday season is the one time of year when food pantries and homeless shelters will often get more help than they need. More than ever, though, people who need people are trying crafty new ways to keep volunteers coming back long after the holiday spirit is gone with the gift wrap.

Critics say some of these efforts create more of an image of altruism than an actual impact and that their popularity gives politicians just another excuse to slash social spending. Others disagree and say such innovations can get people who are abandoning traditional institutions, from the Kiwanis Club to the Girl Scouts, back into the habit of pitching in for the greater good.

Carides, who works in New York and lives in New Jersey, is just one detailed profile in an elaborate database compiled by an organization called Jersey Cares, which sees itself as a warmhearted model for the new millennium. It is a booking agent for busy professionals with a gut-level urge to help, but no clue how. It entices new recruits with wine tastings, happy hours in Hoboken and picnics in the park, and keeps them in the fold with elastic timetables, a measure of fun and a monthly assortment of good deeds as profuse as pizza toppings.

"It's like instant Prozac," says Kadie Dempsey, the Jersey Cares program coordinator. "It makes you feel good."

Jersey Cares is an offshoot of New York Cares, which was founded by four urban professionals a decade ago. They were new to the city and felt a need to volunteer, but found that shelters and soup kitchens and inner-city schools didn't call back, or wanted daytime hours and long commitments--things more suited to stay-at-home spouses or senior citizens. They began building lists of agencies with specific needs and flexible hours, and forming their own programs at others. Now, New York Cares has 2,500 volunteers a month who pick from a 200-item menu more eclectic than the local cable listings.

Volunteer Fever Spreads Across U.S.

This concept, which has since been incorporated as City Cares of America, has spread to 26 major cities with more on the way. In Los Angeles, a chapter co-founded by actor Richard Dreyfuss is known as LA Works. It has amassed a member list of 10,000 volunteers and handles designer volunteer projects for such companies as DreamWorks SKG and Universal Studios.

Its disciples include Gov.-elect Gray Davis and his wife, Sharon, who plan to help LA Works paint murals, build planters and otherwise spruce up the Wilton Elementary School from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday as part of the inauguration ceremonies. Aides said the goal is to set a civic-minded example for Californians.

LA Works and its affiliates are notable because they are on the edge of a movement to custom-fit community involvement to people who might otherwise not bother. "We've really seen across-the-board growth," says Michelle Nunn, executive director of City Cares of America, headquartered in Atlanta.

Carides, 35, works for Grey Advertising Inc. and her account is Seagram and Sons Inc. She buys media space, including those ubiquitous Captain Morgan rum billboards. "It's stressful," she says of her job.

She saw a newsletter at her office about five years ago, when Jersey Cares was getting rolling, and started sampling things. Tutoring poor students. Wrapping gifts for children with AIDS. "It was purely for philanthropic reasons. And it's sometimes nice to meet new people," says Carides, who is single.

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