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Volunteers — a bright spot in a dismal economy

The world has changed. That much is clear.

In the past, our lives and our jobs evolved and grew in response to factors such as demographic shifts, emerging trends, consumer expectations, new technology and ups-and-downs in the economy. But now, it’s not the factors that are morphing. It’s the world.

The recession is a convenient scapegoat, but the list of causes that have contributed to the current situation is long: globalization; our country’s involvement in foreign wars; the European market; Wall Street’s skittishness; bank failures; healthcare reform; government overspending … the list goes on.

Many of the results are painfully obvious — record foreclosures, high unemployment, tight credit — but others are incredibly subtle and just now beginning to be felt, appreciated and understood. Today, the global mindset is more cautious, skeptical and conservative than ever before in recent memory. People have become suspicious about the moral motives, capabilities and competence of government, big business, the legal system and even basic financial models.

In what ways do our current situation and mindset affect people and their decision to volunteer? And how has philanthropic giving changed?

I don’t really know, but I have some guesses. Donors are less inclined, in this economic landscape, to indulge in an impulse donation. In the past, philanthropists were quicker to sign on the dotted line, but, today, they think about things more. Now, nonprofits and agencies have to sell themselves, sell the value of their service and they have to spend an extra half hour explaining why they are different, and making sure a potential donor understands their unique value; their expertise and the quality of their service, staff, instruction and training. Competition among nonprofits for donors’ dollars has increased.

The atmosphere, the climate, of the donor marketplace have changed in a significant and, possibly, indelible way. Our local nonprofits are trying to formulate effective responses. Those who have acknowledged and accepted the new reality, and are now reacting in appropriate, productive, and fiscally responsible ways, will see their agency continue to survive. Those that don’t will fail.

“Win-win” fund-raising events are effective. Do you like an occasional evening out at a casino? Rather than traveling out of town, I hope you were one of the many who attended the gala “Mardi Gras Casino” put together with hundreds of Rotarian volunteer hours. Do you ever go out to local restaurants to eat? I hope you are paying for your meals with United Way dining certificates. Do you enjoy getting dressed up for an evening of good food and dancing? I hope you went to the Pagosa Medical Center’s “Heart Beat Ball” at the Pagosa Lodge on Feb. 25.

Volunteers are a bright spot in this dismal economy. There are people having problems now they never imagined, and people are looking to help others in ways they never anticipated.

Over the last few years, the roof fell in on a lot of us. But even as we are digging ourselves out, we reach out to others. Maybe life has taught us to have more empathy. When we get through this economic meltdown, it won’t be because of Wall Street and Washington. It is friends, neighbors — folks at the street level — who will have gotten themselves and each other through it.

Locally, the volunteers with Loaves and Fishes and the various local food banks are producing a common report. They’re seeing clients they’ve never seen before. Sometimes, it is people they have seen before — but then, they were contributors or volunteers. Now they value the meal and fellowship.

I guess, traditionally, a clear line separated those who needed help and those who gave it. Then a whole lot of things changed and the line has become fuzzy.

Even as financial contributions for nonprofits have declined in our community as businesses and private donors face their own problems, volunteer service has spiked upward. Americans are, by and large, generous people. They have responded to tough economic times by volunteering in big numbers.

Also, volunteers, in general, understand one another because of a singular orientation: a common passion for helping people. We all want to move our community and improve. The fact that the world has changed is not viewed as a problem for people who are determined to change the world.

The volunteers and donors in Pagosa are a group of tenacious, talented and good hearted people who are committed to making a real difference. It’s my honor to work alongside some of them.

If you are not yet involved with volunteer work, but have off and on contemplated getting on board, here are some thoughts to consider. Think about what you want to get out of your volunteer work. Are you looking primarily to give back to the community? To keep your skills fresh? To network? Or simply to keep yourself busy? Try to find a position that fits your needs.

For me, when choosing how and where I want to volunteer, I considered positions that would teach me something new or that would give me experience in an area that has always interested me. I’ve definitely been given good opportunities to expand my skills. I’ve also selected volunteer positions where I am able to share my skills with other volunteers. Volunteering has definitely produced in me a sense that I’m in this (“this” being to move and improve our community) together with others.

The magnitude and multiplicity of needs in our community are not subject to any wholesale fix. Sometimes it seems as if the only reasonable response is to despair. Or a person could recognize that help comes in the form of the cumulative effect of many, many small deeds. They add up. Choose a charity or program and work on one small aspect in one small place where it is possible to see tangible evidence of problems solved. Don’t underestimate the effect you can have on improving the lives of others.

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