Until recently, when you talked about volunteers, you meant the women who held bake sales, organized glee-club concerts, knocked on doors for charities. They could work without pay because their husbands were supporting them, and they did it because their mothers had.

Things have changed.

Over the last few years, a new breed of volunteers has appeared. Between the 1982 fiscal year and 1983, the District of Columbia Volunteer Clearinghouse noticed a 3 per cent rise in the number of men who volunteered. In the last year, the number of participants in ACTION's Retired Senior Volunteer Program has risen from 319,000 to close to 350,000. And leaders of volunteer organizations expect the changes to be reflected in a Gallup poll on volunteerism scheduled for release Oct. 1.

The jobs available for volunteers have changed as much as the people doing them.

You can do consulting work for a museum, fly medical patients across the country, give free legal advice or tell schoolchildren about your career. Leaders of volunteer groups are working to develop new jobs to satisfy the varied pool of today's volunteers.

"I think the stereotype of housewives who were volunteers was always too much of a generalization, but there was a large percentage of them, and that has gone down," says James Lindsay, executive director of D.C.'s Volunteer Clearinghouse.

"Now we see that professional women account for a large percentage of volunteers. While they used to volunteer during the day, now they're asking for evening and weekend jobs."

Meanwhile, President Reagan and members of his administration have been stressing the importance of volunteerism in relieving some of the financial crises faced by social and cultural organizations. Volunteering has become a way for the unemployed and unskilled to gain experience, and for the mentally and physically handicapped to begin the process of joining society.

Also, "There are more minorities volunteering, because I think there is a strong feeling among parents that they can do more to help. From 1978 our numbers have almost quadrupled," says Connie Spinner, director of Volunteer Services and Training in the D.C. public school system.

And with the new volunteers, there are new reasons for volunteering.

The charitable instinct is certainly still the most compelling motive to work without pay, but even that has become more complicated.

"There are people who are looking for a second career," says Antoinette Gardner, chief of volunteer services for the D.C. Commission of Social Services, "especially people who want to get off the welfare roles. They come to us to increase their skills.

"We're also getting a lot of college students doing career testing. They used to come in their senior years; now we're getting them in their sophomore years."

"We get people who are temporarily out of work--and we're only talking two weeks or a month," says Judy Heleine, executive director of the Voluntary Action Center of Fairfax County.

"They don't want to sit at home twiddling their fingers--they want to be out in the community, visible and working. It saves their sanity. And it behooves the voluntary community to become more flexible, to develop things people like this can do for a short period."

Volunteer directors agree that one of the most noticeable and promising changes is the growing involvement of corporations and their employes. With budget cuts straining the already-meager resources of nonprofit organizations, efficient management is more important than ever. Volunteer managers from the private sector can provide the experience the nonprofits lack.

"That's where I see the growth happening," says Steve Delfin, a spokesman for the United Way of the United States. "A lot of it has to do with the visibility in the media in the last 24-36 months. There's probably been more written about professional volunteers in the last two to three years than in the 10 years before that.

"What we're doing is national corporation development aimed at companies--mostly Fortune 500 companies--to get them more involved in general corporate responsibility."

Each year local corporations loan 100 middle- to upper-level managers to work full-time for the eight to 12 weeks of the United Way campaign. On a smaller scale, last summer several corporations in Fairfax County started placing bushel baskets in their front lobbies to collect extra produce from their employes' vegetable gardens. The food goes to local relief agencies.

"As well as helping the agencies, the project is building up team spirit among the employes," says Heleine.

"I don't want to paint too rosy a picture," says Delfin. "The budget cuts have definitely had an effect, but I don't think the number of volunteers in general is the problem. The problem is continuing to convince corporations to loan people out at the same level of involvement."

And why would large corporations want to donate money and employes' time to nonprofit organizations?

"I think that there's a teeny bit of altruism, but mostly I think it's good company policy," says Lindsay.

"I think the employes benefit from moving out of a more rigid environment to a nonprofit environment. It gives them a better attitude and it shows them how the other half lives."