“You Give, and You Get”: Employers (like IBM) Overseeing an Army of Retiree Volunteers

by Kerry Hannon, The New York Times

Highway sign reading Retirement Next Left

THE day Alan Toney retired from Michelin North America he bought a Triumph Bonneville motorcycle and made a plan to ride on all seven continents.

After nine years, only Antarctica remains on his bucket list.

When Mr. Toney, 72, returned to his home in Greenville, S.C., though, a chance encounter with another Michelin retiree took him somewhere he had never expected. It turned out to be a classroom.

Mr. Toney is a member of his former employer’s Michelin Challenge Education volunteer mentoring program, begun three years ago to help struggling public elementary schools near Michelin’s 14 American plants.

It is one of many corporate-sponsored retiree volunteer programs that are gaining momentum in philanthropy, generating community good will and tax breaks along the way, among other benefits.

For many among the growing legions of baby boom retirees who want to do volunteer work, employer programs like Michelin’s provide ready-made placement services able to put their skills to use.

Short-on-cash schools and understaffed nonprofit groups welcome the trained and vetted expertise these programs provide and would be hard-pressed to create anything like them on their own. Many are, in fact, using volunteers to do jobs previously handled by paid workers.

This is not likely to change soon. Nonprofit groups continue to suffer from cuts in government financing and reductions in aid from donors, according to a report by the Nonprofit Research Collaborative, a project of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and five other organizations. The upshot is that roughly six in 10 of the charities surveyed said that they were “looking to volunteers to make ends meet.”

While no reliable figures are available on how many companies offer retiree volunteer programs, they are a growing trend, according to Jackie Norris, executive director of the nonprofit Points of Light Corporate Institute, which hands out an annual Corporate Engagement Award of Excellence to companies that offer employee and retiree volunteer programs.

Companies like General Electric, I.B.M. and Intel offer grants of $500 to more than $5,000 to support their retirees’ projects, like building a playground at a public school or designing a science exhibit at a small nonprofit museum. Such donations are eligible for tax breaks.

The programs typically provide retirees with a Web site and newsletter listing available projects, as well as a place to post their own proposals, which a corporate screener assesses. Employers act as liaisons to the public schools, or nonprofit groups, to connect retirees with projects.

“For a company, it’s not just the charitable thing to do, it’s also the opportunity to have a great group of brand ambassadors out there in the local community to build good will,” Ms. Norris said.

In South Carolina, where Michelin is based, nearly 20 percent of students leave third grade unable to read at grade level, according to Mick Zais, state superintendent of education. The high school graduation rate in the 2010-11 school year was 73.6 percent.

Michelin’s Challenge Education program pairs employees and retirees with eight elementary schools in the state to make presentations and provide tutoring on a range of subjects, including elementary physics, healthful eating and basic math, science and reading skills.

Mr. Toney, an engineer and former tire production quality manager, spends a couple of hours a week helping disadvantaged 9-year-old boys at East North Street Elementary School.

“I love travel and motorcycles, but in the classroom it comes down to one basic truth,” he said with emotion. “When I see the light come on in a kid’s eyes, and he says, ‘I get it!’ It’s priceless. I feel invested in these kids.”

His wanderlust, however, adds a twist to his tutoring. “I always try to give them a little information about where I’ve been and see if they’ll bite and ask a question,” he said. “Then I pull out a map and try to widen their world a little.”

When he retired three years ago, Ray Creely, 63, a former director of I.B.M. business consulting services, jumped right into the company’s On Demand Community program. With support from I.B.M. and National Geographic, he helped create a curriculum for a high school in a low-income area of St. Louis to help students understand their origins through a genome project. In conjunction with the University of Missouri, St. Louis, Mr. Creely started a summer science camp for 30 high school sophomores from low-income urban areas.

“I want to help students stay engaged in school and think about their future,” said Mr. Creely, who volunteers 10 to 15 hours a week. “My wife has been known to say, ‘Did you forget you’re retired?’ But I’m not one to sit back and play golf all the time.”

Mr. Creely is one of more than 16,000 I.B.M. retiree volunteers, a number that has more than quadrupled since the program began in 2004. On Demand is a Web-based portal with more than 5,000 projects listed. It also has educational tools for volunteers, like video presentations and training materials, for instance, on how to teach students in the sciences, as well as ways to bolster literacy, build robots and help with disaster recovery.

I.B.M. volunteers who log 40 hours or more of service in a calendar year at an eligible school or nonprofit organization can apply for a $500 cash grant for the institution. Depending on the number of hours they volunteer the use of I.B.M.’s educational offerings, they can apply for $3,000 grants for the institution. To encourage groups, $3,000 grants are also offered for projects with 25 or more volunteers involved. I.B.M. will award a total of more than $4 million in community grants this year, said Diane Melley, vice president for I.B.M.’s Global Community Initiatives.

Related: Volunteering and IBM

The Intel Retiree Organization was created in 2008 to connect with more than 5,000 retirees worldwide. The Intel Foundation matches the time employees and American retirees spend volunteering in schools and nonprofits with a cash donation. Retirees can gain access to volunteer resources and read about volunteers’ experiences on the retiree organization’s Web site.

General Electric’s Elfun volunteer program has about 30,000 members; about half are retirees, working in 28 chapters around the country, according to Janine Rouson, the program’s executive director. G.E. also provides money though the GE Foundation for a wide range of retiree volunteer efforts.

Universities are also stepping up programs involving their retirees. Cornell’s Encore programs include part-time paid employment opportunities at Cornell that can often be done remotely from anywhere in the country and two volunteer options. One unites retirees and current employees who need their expertise for a project. The other connects retirees to local and national volunteer opportunities run through the university, as well as local agencies in the cities where they live.

“We realized that there would be a significant number of our employees retiring in the next 10 years, and that was a lot of knowledge we’d be losing,” says Lynette Chappell-Williams, who manages the Encore programs.

Three years ago, Karin Ash, 62, retired as career development director at Cornell. She is still on campus, though. She and her Cavachon dog, Walnut, volunteer through Cornell Companions, a pet visitation program sponsored by the College of Veterinary Medicine. Volunteers and their pets visit children with disabilities and patients at hospitals and nursing homes.

Ms. Ash logs in a few hours a week at the child care center on campus and helps at a local independent movie theater and the public library. “I like doing a little bit of everything,” she said. “I can be as active as I want to be, and the Encore program puts it all out there for us to pick and choose. It’s a joy. You give, and you get.”

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Greater IBMers who’ve retired: tell us YOUR story! What has retirement given you the time to do?

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2 thoughts on ““You Give, and You Get”: Employers (like IBM) Overseeing an Army of Retiree Volunteers

  1. Great article ! I, too, do a great deal of volunteer work and am an IBM retiree. What is the website URL that lists the volunteer opportunities and opportunity to post proposals? Thank you.

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