FAIRFIELD, Conn. — During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the catchphrase was “Buddy, can you spare a dime?”
Now, in the current economic recession, it could be “Can you spare a day?”
That’s according to Knights of Columbus’ Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, who pointed out that an hour of volunteerism a week is less than 10 minutes a day.
With millions of people losing their jobs and many losing their homes, nonprofit charities are feeling the pinch in decreasing contributions. To meet the challenge, Anderson is calling for a massive new volunteerism effort. The Knights, along with the Center for Faith and Public Life at Fairfield University in Connecticut, are sponsoring a volunteerism summit in New York City Feb. 27.
Headlined “Neighbor Helping Neighbor,” the summit will include representatives from top charities and volunteer groups to find new ways to promote volunteerism to help more seeking assistance.
“This is a nation filled with imagination and with millions of people ready to step forward,” said Anderson during a Jan. 23 speech at Fairfield University announcing the summit. “If greed — one of the worst aspects of human nature — helped push us into this crisis, then one of the best aspects of our nature — generosity — will be necessary to help pull us out of it.”
The Knights often boast of the man-hours their members provide doing charitable works. In 2007, the latest year for figures, the Knights not only donated $145 million to charitable causes but provided 69 million hours of volunteer service “through an effective grassroots structure of thousands of active councils motivated by the Christian principle of charity,” Anderson said.
“The challenge we must meet is to effectively connect new volunteers to the local community projects,” Anderson stressed, “and there is no better place to start looking for new volunteers than in our churches.”
On Jan. 19, he said, Knights in Washington, D.C., through local churches, gave “the gift of warmth” to nearly 1,200 children in their “Coats for Kids” initiative. (The rest of a total 7,800 new coats were distributed later in January to children in Detroit and Chicago.)
“Specifically, volunteer groups with religious ties — including the Knights of Columbus — need to partner with their local churches and synagogues to reach those in the pews with the news about opportunities to volunteer,” he said. “No audience should be more receptive to this message.”
Outlining the Need
The need is obvious. Indeed, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., the Knights’ supreme chaplain, noted immediately after Anderson’s speech that in Fairfield County, one of the wealthiest in the nation, Catholic Charities will serve more than 1 million meals to the homeless and homebound. One diocesan soup kitchen, the largest in the state, “attracts and depends on armies of volunteers from 87 parishes,” he said.
Candy Hill, senior vice president for social policy and government affairs for Catholic Charities USA, based in Arlington, Va., said member organizations reflect distress in local communities. According to Hill, the Arlington area alone is reporting a 400% increase in the number of people coming for emergency assistance.
“The reality is that we’re having to serve more people, particularly middle-class people, with greater needs and fewer resources,” she said.
The Giving USA Foundation reported that while nonprofit figures for monetary contributions in 2008 aren’t available until June 2009, historically, donations decrease during recessions. According to Nancy Raybin, chairwoman of its parent organization, the Giving Institute, some organizations have not seen the year-end giving they hoped for in numbers and dollars. Although she observed good donations during three quarters of last year, she added, “I don’t think we know the whole scope yet, and 2009 will be worse than 2008.”
“Our concern needs to be what happens in 2009,” she said, “and what steps can be taken to help charities get the resources they need for the help they provide.”
Because the Center for Faith and Public Life maintains regular contact with national and international nonprofits, its director, Jesuit Father Richard Ryscavage, doesn’t know anyone not talking or planning for a major drop in contributions. Although there are fewer resources, needs are greater and demand for the services has doubled.
“The Anderson speech points the way,” said Father Ryscavage. “If you had enough people trying to help at the local level, you could meet a lot of these needs.”
He also sees Anderson’s initiative coinciding with “what the White House people are thinking on this.” Volunteerism becomes part of the way of life for citizens, he explained.
“A sense of national service takes root so it’s not considered an odd thing for friends and families to volunteer their services (regularly) at the community and town level across the country,” said Father Ryscavage, likening it to an inculturated national voluntary service in a way reminiscent of a call to the Peace Corps.
The Feb. 27 summit will have leading nonprofits share ideas about collaboration, said Father Ryscavage, adding that they’re trying to contact the White House to send a representative to the summit and hope to have a report to deliver to the White House afterward.
Already signed up for the summit are organizations like Catholic Charities USA and Volunteers of America, the country’s largest provider of housing for the poor and those in need and a faith-based organization.
According to Volunteers of America’s Harry Quiett, vice president of ministry development, “Volunteerism is so overlooked and it’s such a critical issue. This is a great opportunity … for us to begin to collaborate to become better stewards in these tough times of what God has given us.”
Catholic Charities’ Hill is excited about the summit. Even with “230,000 volunteers who have answered God’s call to help people in need,” she said, “in these tough economic times, we need more human resources and volunteers to help our neighbors who are suffering.”
Knights of Columbus spokesman Andrew Walther described how an entire parish of 3,000 people bringing just one can of food each could help a hard-pressed food bank provide meals for needy people for weeks. Churches are the one place where people come together every week in great numbers. Volunteering with familiar people rather then with strangers makes the effort easier, too.
“It’s something very tangible that makes an instantaneous change in a person’s life,” Walther said.
As deputy grand knight of Holy Family Council 8882 in New Haven, Conn., Walther noted his council is already planning additional volunteer efforts. In fact, councils all over the country are going to be invited to be more active in providing food and clothing.
‘Hallmark of Recovery’
At Fairfield, Anderson called upon Americans to make the “spirit of volunteerism the hallmark of our nation’s recovery.”
“Let us truly become a nation of neighbors helping neighbors,” he said. “If we do that, we will have accomplished much more than an economic recovery — we will have set a new and powerful moral compass for the future of our country.”
He noted that while government plays a role in encouraging Americans to volunteer, such as when President Obama called on Americans to participate in a National Day of Service the day before he was inaugurated, volunteerism can’t be confined to one Monday in January.
For Christians, this call has a special significance because of the Gospel’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Anderson pointed out that while volunteer and charitable organizations must work with government at every level to best serve the needs of our communities, “a major strength of such organizations is their local network. Our local churches and synagogues can help us find additional volunteers.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
INFORMATION Carl Anderson’s speech can be seen at KofC.org