News and analysis
March 31, 2011

United Way Seeks to Recruit a Million Volunteers to Mentor Students

Max Taylor

Brian Gallagher, chief executive of United Way Worldwide, announces a new effort to recruit one million mentors and tutors for students.

United Way Worldwide announced on Thursday it would strive to recruit 1 million volunteers to serve as mentors, tutors, and readers to students.

United Way will go to traditional sources of volunteering—religious congregations, retirement centers, schools, and colleges—and plans to focus its recruitment in the 70 American cities with the highest dropout rates.

The plan is part of a United Way effort begun in 2008 to halve the nation’s 25-percent high-school dropout rate by 2018. The organization now spends a third of the total $4-billion it distributes each year on education-improvement efforts.

United Way announced its focus on education goals as part of broad overhaul designed to demonstrate to donors that it was making measurable progress to solve specific problems.

The other goals are to help low-income people improve their financial status and to encourage all Americans to improve their health.

'Disconnect’ With Schools

The United Way also released a report on Thursday that was based on interviews with people across the country about their relationship with local schools.

While a majority of people in the United Way study said they are willing to volunteer, about 40 percent also cited work and family obligations as the main reasons they don’t do so.

“The majority want to be involved,” said Brian Gallagher, president of United Way Worldwide, in Alexandria, Va. “They just don’t know how to do it. They feel disconnected from the schools.”

Mr. Gallagher said the new commitment is intended to make it easier for people to learn how to help.

The American Federation of Teachers has already told United Way that it will recruit retired teachers as mentors and reading buddies, Mr. Gallagher said. “That’s a group that won’t require a lot of training,” he quipped.

In addition, the management-consulting firm Deloitte pledged to make volunteering in the schools the key priority for its 45,000 employees.

The move was welcomed by Obama officials attending the event to announce the volunteerism effort.

“Our education-reform agenda absolutely cannot wait,” said Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who attended the announcement along with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “There was a time when you could have a high-school degree and have a middle-class life. To be honest, those days don’t exist anymore.”