Volunteering: Everyday Giving

Times of crisis (...) tend to isolate people. Many of us turn inward, safeguarding ourselves and our families against the unknown future. Yet, despite the economic turmoil—or, perhaps, because of it—more and more Americans are helping their fellow man. About 27 percent of adults in the United States volunteered in 2009, which was up slightly over the previous year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And, interestingly enough, it wasn’t the unemployed who were using their extra time to do some good; employed people volunteered at a higher rate.

We know what you’re thinking: Many of us are working longer and harder for less money than ever before. How does anyone find the time for philanthropy? Incredibly, many do—as you’ll read in the cases of these six people. They have different causes, are of different ages and come from different corners of the country, but they’re united by one prevailing desire: to make the world just a little bit brighter. Here’s how they do it.

FEMALE EMPOWERMENT

Jane Perdue, 56, Mount Pleasant, S.C.

Her cause: From her time as a Fortune 100 senior-level executive, Jane Perdue knew firsthand “the unique challenges that businesswomen face,” she says. So, when she moved cross-country from California to South Carolina, she set out to find a way she could empower her fellow females in the job market—and she found just that in the Center for Women in Charleston. Perdue, president of The Braithwaite Group consulting firm, volunteers there monthly as a job coach and workshop facilitator, preparing women for today’s workplace. “The majority of women who use the center’s job-coach services are over 50 and have lost a long-held job or are having to re-enter the workforce for the first time in years, typically following a spouse being laid off,” Perdue says. “Their skills are sometimes rusty, their résumés in serious need of a makeover and their fears of interviewing supersized.”

Penciling it in: Although her time is limited—and split among her coaching and consulting duties, her other philanthropic efforts (Charleston Young Professionals, EXECnetSC and the Society for Human Resource Management) and two young grandchildren—Perdue treats her volunteering sessions just like a business meeting or any other important appointment. “It goes right into my calendar as an action item,” she says. “It becomes a priority that way.”

Giving and receiving: “My life is infinitely richer from making time to give to others,” Perdue says. “I’ve learned that leadership is art of the heart—that, by sharing with others what I know and have done, it creates a network of giving and sharing that enriches everyone.”

Get Started Tip: “Just jump in and make it happen,” Perdue says. “I love the quote from Ray Bradbury where he says, ‘Jump off cliffs and build your wings on the way down.’ ”  

BROTHERLY LOVE

Elisa, 33, and Jeff Stokes, 31, Austin, Texas

Their cause: Now the parents of a newborn, Elisa and Jeff Stokes were newlyweds without kids of their own who loved spending time with their three nephews and had room in their hearts to share. So, in 2008, they decided to sponsor a boy through Big Brothers Big Sisters. Their “little” is Nathan Limas, now 8. Because his mother is single, works full time and has four kids, the Stokes wanted to provide a warm, stable environment for the boy, with plenty of personal attention. “I think his biggest need is help with school and to have consistency in his life, especially with a male role model, since he rarely sees his dad,” says Elisa, a sales account manager.

Laying the groundwork: While their monthly outings have included everything from bowling, swimming and movies to Chuck E. Cheese, the Austin Children’s Museum and a UT basketball game, Jeff believes one of their most important contributions is offering the boy a different perspective. “His ideas of what is cool are rims, low-riders, tattoos and those types of things,” says Jeff, a teacher. “That is fine, but we also want him to understand that responsibility, good grades and helping others can be cool, too.”

Life lessons: “I have learned the power of just being there,” Jeff says. “We don’t claim to have changed the world or anything, but, in Nathan’s life, showing up, being accountable and being there for him when he has problems have been big to him. When you are helping someone one on one, the difference you make is probably more visible, and still very rewarding.”

Get Started Tip: “There’s a way to find the time—maybe you’re a graphic designer and you are too busy to physically go on-site and volunteer someplace,” Elisa says. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t help out an organization—perhaps they need someone to design a brochure or an ad in the paper—everyone can find an hour at home at night.”

FAMILY TIES

Lindsay Whitcher, 31, Boulder, Colo.

Her cause: Lindsay Whitcher first discovered The Family Learning Center as a college assignment. As part of a public relations course, she and a team were charged with creating a PR plan for the Boulder nonprofit, which provides low-income families with after-school programs, tutoring, ESL classes, parenting classes and more. Years later, after graduation and building her career, Whitcher found herself drawn to the center once again. “I realized that, while it may be a number of years until my husband and I could afford to give more than small contributions to the center, I could help by donating my time and experience in the areas of events, communications and public relations,” she says. Her efforts have helped the center gain recognition in the community, and Whitcher was elected as a board member.

Balls in the air: Whitcher knows a thing or two about juggling: She has a 1-year-old strategic communications firm, a 2-year-old son and a newborn daughter. But she finds ways to make it work, like having her son sit in on board meetings with her or phoning into meetings instead of attending in person. “It isn’t always easy, but I truly think that everyone has the time to commit themselves to something that’s more important than their immediate personal and professional lives,” she says.

Baby steps: “I’ve realized that volunteering and giving back to your community can start really small. You don’t have to be the biggest donor or the top volunteer; you give what you can, when you can, and you still make a difference,” Whitcher says.

Get Started Tip: “Find an organization or opportunity that interests you,” Whitcher says. “When you are passionate about the organization, you are much more likely to continue to work with that organization.”

OPEN HOUSE

Rory Cohen, 55, and Mathew Clark, 55, Wyncote, Pa.

Their cause: Although they come from different religious backgrounds, husband and wife Cohen and Clark agree that philanthropy should be a vital part of every family’s life. “My family is Jewish; Mathew is Quaker,” Cohen says. “Giving is an integral part of both traditions. I think it is important at so many levels: practical, spiritual, energetic.” The parents of two 19-year-olds take advantage of their spacious home by hosting those in need, a practice they refer to as “hospitality ministry.” They have opened their doors to those who are temporarily homeless, people in town for medical procedures, young adults traveling from home and bands who are traveling through town. Clark, a family practice doctor, also works with the Liberty Project, which aids political refugees. Plus, Cohen finds time to run a community garden in a neighborhood park and coordinate a shelter program through Interfaith Hospitality Network, putting up homeless families in local churches and synagogues.

Planting the seeds: Cohen, president of Entelekey Inc., which provides coaching services to speakers and conference organizers, says their children also have benefited from the family’s hospitality. “They’ve learned to live with people of diverse backgrounds, to respect others, to share and to be grateful for the blessings that we have.”

Save the date: Cohen has found that the best way to work volunteering into the family’s schedule is to block out chunks of time for specific activities: “We take on seasonal projects where we can budget the time that’s involved.” But, for those who think they can’t find time, Cohen thinks they may need a change of perspective. “Volunteering is a social thing, a spiritual thing, a community thing,” she says. “So we don’t think of it as taking time away—it’s more time for enriching our lives.”

Get Started Tip: “Combine volunteering with socializing,” Cohen says. “Get a group of friends or family to do something as a group, even once a year, like helping at the local park clean-up. That way you are building volunteering into something already in your life.”