Too Few Good Men?

Leah LeMoineMay 1, 2014
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The dearth of male volunteers for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Arizona reflects a gender disparity in Valley volunteerism at large. Where are all the men?


The unmistakable sizzle of meat hitting hot oil buzzes through the room as eight pairs of big hands help eight pairs of little hands gently present the chicken breasts they’ve just gleefully pounded to the olive oil-coated pans in front of them. The chicken browns to a pale caramel and the little faces look up into the big ones with pride.

The pairs of would-be chefs are chopping, pounding, browning and sautéing at the bimonthly cooking class Executive Chef Anthony DeMuro and Executive Sous Chef Josh Panza host for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona at Different Pointe of View at the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort. The big hands belong to adult volunteers (“Bigs,” in BBBS parlance), each matched with a “Little” (ages 6-18) for friendship and mentoring. One pair stands out from the rest. Matt Manoogian’s Little, 16-year-old Marcus, towers over him as they emulsify vinegar and oil to dress the local greens piled on a plate at their station. Manoogian, a Tempe realtor, is of average height and athletic build, with a close-shaved head and an affable countenance. Marcus has the precocious, practiced cool and imposing stature of a young man who sees himself as a “minor” in name only. Manoogian manages to crack the young man’s cool-guy aloofness by razzing him and making faces, and sly smiles and chuckles escape despite Marcus’ attempts to stifle them.

Beyond their differences in size and appearance, Manoogian and Marcus also stand out simply because of their backstory. They’ve been together the longest of all the pairs in the room – 10 years and counting – and are one of three male-male matches at the class, which isn’t low in this context, but is in the rest of the organization. Nationally, more than 70 percent of children waiting to be matched with Bigs are boys, with an average wait of two years, according to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. In most states, including Arizona, an abundance of Big Sisters means immediate matches for prospective Little Sisters. Though occasionally a male Little will be paired with a female Big (as is the case with the fourth boy at the cooking class), BBBS goes to great pains to make compatible, same-gender matches to give kids what they most desperately need when they enter the program: a positive force – for friendship, mentoring or both – within their gender.

While BBBS has had a long and well-documented history of gender disparity with its volunteers, both nationally since its inception in 1904 and in the Valley since its establishment here in 1955, the organization is by no means alone in its plight. Across the Valley, many nonprofit organizations and charities report a similar, if often less striking, imbalance when it comes to male and female volunteer numbers. Is it truly the case that women volunteer more? Or are male volunteers underreported or overlooked?     

Of the 10 organizations interviewed for this article, comprising a broad swath of volunteer opportunities, from helping animals to the elderly to terminally ill children, nine report higher numbers of female volunteers. The sole exception is the Boys and Girls Club of Central Phoenix, which says its volunteer base is 53 percent male and 47 percent female, but declined further comment and participation in the story. Most others report a 60 percent female, 40 percent male split, though some, like HALO Animal Rescue and OCJ Kids, which works with at-risk youth in schools and group homes, hover around 70-75 percent female. Anecdotal evidence suggests that men just don’t volunteer as much as women do.

“I would suggest some cautious interpretation,” says Dr. Robert Ashcraft, executive director of Arizona State University’s Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation. “What’s been revealed to you by people you’ve talked with is their reality in their nonprofit, but I think it’s a huge leap to make any sweeping generalization to say that men aren’t as charitable in their volunteerism as women are. [Participation] is done in different ways.”

Ashcraft points to two studies regarding gender in volunteerism, conducted around the same time and on the same population, but with opposite results: One indicated higher numbers of female volunteers, while the other indicated higher numbers of male volunteers. “Partly it’s how the questions are asked,” Ashcraft says. Men might serve more on the boards of nonprofit organizations, donate money or services, or be involved in civic clubs, as opposed to direct-service volunteers engaged at a soup kitchen or animal shelter, for example. “The story is a complicated one about what we mean by volunteerism and how do people engage in a community. Depending on how that’s deciphered, it can go a lot of different ways on that gender question.”

Nationally, the data does indicate a higher number of female volunteers. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service’s 2012 Volunteering and Civic Engagement report, 27.2 million males volunteered 3.4 billion hours of community service in 2012, compared with 37.3 million females who volunteered 4.5 billion hours. For organizations that hinge on gender, like Big Brothers Big Sisters and OCJ Kids, this trend is a problem. For other organizations, equality is less important than quantity.

“It depends on the type of organization,” says Arin Lopez, volunteer manager at Make-A-Wish Arizona. “We love having volunteers that can help us grant wishes, and it can be either gender to help us do it. We do see that the wishes that involve more of what society deems as masculine wishes – for instance, wishes to be a police officer, wishes to have a backyard play set, wishes to be a sports figure – those typically attract more male volunteers to them, as opposed to wishes to have a princess party. It’s not anything we do on our end; we don’t actively seek out certain types of volunteers for those wishes. We see that people just naturally gravitate toward those down the gender lines.”

Traditional gender roles still play a part in volunteerism, according to many nonprofits. Most hypotheses about the lower ratio of male to female volunteers are based on long-held stereotypes that range from grain-of-truth accuracy to the patently offensive: Women are more nurturing. Men are afraid of commitment. Women don’t work as much and therefore have more time for leisure activities like volunteering. Men want to volunteer, but are too lazy to do anything about it. Women volunteer so their husbands don’t have to. Men derive their sense of worth from making money, and volunteering doesn’t bring home the proverbial bacon. And so on.

While these reasons may have been legitimate at one point, our culture has since evolved. For better or worse, that legacy can be difficult to shake.

“We do live on historical precedence, right? Think back to the ‘50s when women were largely stay-at-home moms. That’s where your den mother was, and after school in the backyard,” Ashcraft says. “If you grow up in an environment where that’s what mom did, you might emulate what mom did even if you’re a working professional… But this notion of more or less nurturing, I’m pretty cautious on that one. I think each have pathways through which they express care and concern and ‘paying back.’”

Lopez of Make-A-Wish acknowledges that men and women are socialized differently in American society, but says he disagrees with the blanket statement that men are incapable of being as nurturing as women. “When we get volunteers who are men, they absolutely love their experience and they feel it is such a magical thing… They’re very nurturing and compassionate with our wish kids,” Lopez says. “Our median age for a volunteer is 39 years old; it’s quite young. I think it really changes their lives and allows them the freedom to be able to show that compassionate side that a lot of men don’t typically get to show in front of their male friends.”

Still, most organizations report the majority of male volunteers are drawn to typically masculine volunteering opportunities – fixing appliances and doing yard work for the elderly through Duet: Partners in Health and Aging, coaching junior sports teams, serving in business-led community service efforts like painting and trash cleanup, and tutoring in the historically male-dominant math and science fields in local schools. HandsOn Greater Phoenix’s Your Experience Counts, an academic mentoring program, saw an increase in male volunteers after adding math and science to their offerings. “Once we started doing that, we found a lot of retired engineers and CPAs and that sort of person attracted to the program. So that’s been interesting,” says Rhonda Oliver, president of HandsOn Greater Phoenix.

Only a few of the nonprofits contacted for this article say they actively court more male volunteers. Most use word of mouth, social media and email blasts to attract volunteers in general. “We don’t have a very assertive campaign where we’re actually going out and recruiting,” Oliver says. “We rely more on our website and our word of mouth and a positive experience. It’s been interesting to recruit for this academic mentoring program because we have been specifically targeting Boomers and retirees. We use social media and all those types of things, but for this particular population we have been more dependent on newspaper and traditional coverage, even little blurbs in an HOA newsletter or community newsletter.”

To address their lower numbers of male volunteers, BBBS has made a number of videos imploring more men to become Bigs, including a tearjerker called “End the Wait.” In it, a young boy and his mother talk about his “sad and lonely” time waiting for a match and their happiness when he was finally paired with a Big. “That video makes me cry every time! It really captures the desire many of our kids have to get a Big Brother to call their friend,” says Cameron Plese, community relations specialist for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona and a former Big Brother himself. “You aren’t there to be a replacement parent. It really is just a friendship. I went in thinking I was going in strictly to be a role model, but you learn very quickly that you’re getting just as much out of it. It really is a mutually beneficial thing.”  

Manoogian agrees. He comes from a big family and got involved with BBBS because, he says, “I like kids and I thought it was very sad that some people didn’t have what I had.” He and Marcus bonded over their mutual love of sports and frequently play, watch, and attend games together. They’ve also tried many non-sporty activities, like the BBBS cooking class at the Pointe (their favorite tradition – they’re regulars and have missed only one class), plays, classical music concerts and even a night at the opera. (It wasn’t their favorite, they say, but they’re glad they tried it.) Marcus says Manoogian gets him out of his comfort zone and helps him through challenges.

“Matt’s had a big impact on me. He’s taught me a lot of things – how to act on a job, how to respect a person, what type of car to get, how to get in shape,” Marcus says. “I do see him as a role model. When I see him handle certain situations, I handle them the same way. My mom looked at it from a deeper aspect [when she got him involved in the program]. She wanted a male role model in my life because there wasn’t one.”

Manoogian smiles, visibly touched. “Thanks, buddy,” he says. “The best parts of me, I hope, are a role model for him and not the worst…He’s top of his class, he’s just a smart kid, and he stays out of trouble.”

Having a positive male role model to encourage them to stay on the right path has a huge impact on Little Brothers, according to BBBS. Studies from outside research firms have shown that kids in the program are 46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol, and 52 percent less likely to skip school. Marcus says his mom would have kept him on the right path no matter what, but having Manoogian around has “helped a lot.”

Another angle nonprofits work in attracting male volunteers is, ironically, the female factor. “I have a whole handful of friends who think that volunteering is a very attractive trait in somebody,” Lopez says. “When you get someone who steps outside of the stereotype [of female volunteers], such as a young male who also wants to volunteer and give some of his time to somebody else, I think a lot of folks do find that more admirable.”

This theme is mined for aw-shucks-ma’am effect in another video produced by BBBS, a wordless jaunt set to bouncy music called “Chicks Dig Bigs.” In it, Big Brothers and Little Brothers extend their chivalry to neighborhood women of all ages – helping a granny cross the road, paying a young woman’s parking meter – and gain the respect of their community. The female-approval stimulus is not lost on other organizations, and most nonprofits say that couples are a huge source of their male volunteer population. A woman gets involved, brings her man along, and they both end up enjoying their service together.

“If there’s anything that helps us increase our male population, it’s that a wife will come down with her husband,” says Marlena Padron, director of community engagement at Christian-based Phoenix Rescue Mission. “I actually get a lot of boyfriends and girlfriends or engaged people. I don’t know if that’s a test for marriage or something – ‘Will he come down and serve a homeless person with me?’”



Ultimately, Valley nonprofits of all stripes hope Arizonans heed their charitable impulses and get connected somehow. Even a little bit of time and effort can snowball into an avalanche of change and goodwill, they say. “With all the organizations and causes that we have here in Arizona, I think there is a match for everybody to at least give some time,” Lopez says. “It doesn’t matter what their schedule is like, or when they work, or how they work or where they work. Volunteering gives somebody a higher sense of purpose on this planet, and being able to give back to others is a way to improve our own lives. I think it’s a way to sort of cement our legacy.”

The consensus with most nonprofits and charitable organizations is that more volunteers in general are needed to keep their infrastructures sound and the engine of altruism going, regardless of gender. “I think volunteerism across the board is important for males and females,” says Isabel Cota, volunteer coordinator at HALO Animal Rescue and a former student of Ashcraft’s. “I went to school at ASU for nonprofit leadership and management, so volunteers are my thing. It would be great if it was an even 50/50, but it doesn’t always happen that way. There were more females in my degree.”

Of course, for BBBS, that 50/50 balance is the ultimate goal. There are currently about 300 children  waiting to be matched with Big Brothers and Big Sisters in the Valley, mostly young boys in Mesa and the West Valley. “They get really excited about joining the program and want a Big Brother, and then they have to wait and wait and wait,” Plese says. “The main concern that I had and that I see with others is people think they don’t have time for it, or they have the assumption that it costs a lot of money. Realistically, all it is is a friendship. It really doesn’t take a lot of time. You make time for a lot of your friends; it’s just adding another friend to your circle.”

Plese and Manoogian keep telling their stories in the hopes of attracting more males to the program. Plese says BBBS plans to continue to improve its recruitment efforts, dispel misconceptions about the organization, and create compatible matches that will create lasting friendships.

“A lot of people think it might be too much of a commitment or they think they might not get matched up with the right person,” says Bryan Milward, a government relations specialist for the University of Arizona Health Network and Big Brother to Ethan, 12. “Those are understandable concerns, but I think they do such a great job with the match. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience and something I’d like to continue to do in the future.”

Marcus plans to stay in touch with Manoogian and carry on the Big Brother torch even after he ages out of the official program when he turns 18. He’s already formed mentoring friendships with younger boys who hang out at his gym. “[They] look up to me. I like that big brother-little brother relationship. I never had a little brother who could look up to me. That’s a good feeling.”

Get Connected
“Start somewhere and do something,” says Rhonda Oliver, president of HandsOn Greater Phoenix. “There’s something for everyone. We see real trends and spikes around the holidays and disasters, [but] there are disasters of one sort going on every single day of the year and people who need volunteers. Need knows no season.” Use this guide to the organizations interviewed for this article as a starting point to get involved, or check out, where you can search for volunteer opportunities by type and be matched with organizations near you.

>> Arizona Department of Economic Security
Help families in Child Protective Services (CPS), answer phones at CPS’ after-hours center, assist with administrative tasks and special projects in departments of interest, and help with the Children’s Heart Gallery, which highlights children who are waiting for adoption., 602-542-1991

>> Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona
Commit to a mentoring friendship as a Big Brother or Big Sister, or donate money to support a match and BBBS-sponsored activities for Bigs and Littles. The organization has a critical need for Big Brothers., 602-799-0512

>> Duet: Partners in Health and Aging
Help homebound adults through grocery shopping; transportation; friendly visiting and phoning; handyman services; and paperwork, respite and computer assistance., 602-274-5022

>> HALO Animal Rescue
Care for and clean animals and their living spaces, play with the animals, do kitty cuddling at partnering pet stores, or get certified as an adoption counselor., 602-506-2239

>> HandsOn Greater Phoenix
Sign up for individual or corporate volunteering opportunities that fit into your schedule with the organization’s myriad nonprofit partners, for as much time as you can devote, or participate in “days of service,” held four times throughout the year.

>> Heard Museum
Join the Heard Museum Guild and staff the gift shop, bookstore, or information desk. Serve as a docent, develop educational programs, get trained to be a speaker, and organize and staff museum events. The museum reports a need for more Native American volunteers.

>> Make-A-Wish
Help with granting wishes, fundraising, office tasks and special events, or train to become a wish ambassador. The organization has a critical need for bilingual wish granters and translators., 602-343-9441

>> OCJ Kids
Mentor foster children, work in group homes, assist with collection drives and service projects,  sponsor individual foster kids or donate to the Adopt-A-Bed Club, which provides mentoring and home improvement services to group homes., 602-439-2171

>> Phoenix Rescue Mission
Prepare and serve meals, provide childcare, staff special events, lead Bible studies and field trips, and ride in one of the mission’s Hope Coaches, vans that take resources directly to the homeless.

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