- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2008

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.

Organizations such as Civic Ventures and Greater DC Cares are trying to tackle this problem head on. Civic Ventures has introduced the Experience Corps to help place people over the age of 55 in fulfilling service opportunities. It has 2,000 Corps members in 19 cities.

To help prepare people and organizations for these opportunities, Civic Ventures also has created the Next Chapter, which helps people in the second half of life “set a course, connect with peers and find pathways to significant service,” as its Web site says.

Additionally, Civic Ventures has sponsored the Purpose Prize to invest $100,000 each in people over the age of 60 who are taking on some of society’s biggest challenges.

Greater DC Cares has helped facilitate the creation of 125 skills-based volunteer projects for nonprofit partner organizations in and around the District. The volunteer-led projects include technology support, financial resource management, board development, marketing and fundraising expertise. This includes a partnership with the consulting firm Deloitte, which recently committed $50 million worth of pro-bono consulting nationally over the next three years.

Still, these efforts are not enough. The needs in our communities are intensifying, and we are undercapitalized in every sense for the task of meeting them.

We - individuals and nonprofits alike - have to do better at doing good.

As concerned citizens, we need to step up to our civic responsibilities, be clear about what value we can add and proactively search for the right kind of organization to channel our energy and talent.

For their part, the nonprofit organizations themselves need to structure their volunteer engagements to capture the full potential of a potentially vast new pool of skilled and seasoned citizen do-gooders.

We have some good models to follow - and no time to waste.

*Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are the co-authors of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives” and the founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, an entrepreneurial leadership development firm. They can be reached at authors@lifeentrepreneurs.com.

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