For two years, Georgene Noffsinger tried to do it all: the work of a real estate agent, the work of a mother and the work of a precinct vice chairman for Montgomery County's Democratic-Party. Then she decided that, unless she wanted to stop sleeping, something had to give.
So, a year ago, she called the party's precinct coordinator and told him to find-someone else to run the Gaithersburg precinct. "I simply found I didn't have time to do a decent job of it, so I didn't want to do it," she recalls.
Noffsinger, who at 46 has helped raise four children, gone through a divorce and returned to a full-time paying job, once devoted a good part of her life to volunteerism: with school PTAs, with the cancer drive and then with the Democrats. Now, she says, it's someone else's turn.
But, in Montgomery County and around the metropolitan area, there are fewer and people willing to take her place.
One by one, the groups that have been the traditional focal points of civic activism -- the political parties, the League of Women Voters, the school volunteer programs and the PTAs -- are finding the flow of volunteer help ebbing away.
The trend varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from group to group and from year to year. But the overall pattern is the same. As Montgomery County Democratic precinct coordinator Bill Bradford puts it: "We're having trouble getting fresh blood."
In Montgomery, where political and civic activism has been almost a form of religion for two decades, county Democrats could not recruit chairmen for 20 of the county's 181 precincts, in 1976, the last predidential election year, all 144 precincts had Democratic coordinators.
The county's League of Women Voters, 1,300 strong in the mid-1970s, has 789 members now. Nationally, the League has lost 5,000 members a year for the past two years and now numbers about 120,000 women in its membership.
Across Maryland, the number of volunteer teacher's aides and tutors in the public schools, which had gone up steadily since 1972 despite declining enrollment, dropped off 5 percent last year.
Elsewhere, as Sandy Lindsay, the incoming chairman of Alexandria's PTA Council, put it: "It's hard enough to get people to do the chores, much less keep lists."
A number of factors have contributed to the decline, according to organization officials.
For one thing, they say, many of the women who were the core of the volunteer labor force have gone back to paying jobs, either out of personal preference for economic necessity.
For another, those men and women who do have time to give want to become involved in causes that touch their lives directly, or that they have strong feelings about: the antinuclear or antiabortion movements, for instance, or a neighborhood association fighting against a new highway or for a new library.
And finally, the volunteer organizers say, people who have less free time in general are more inclined to spend it with their families or just relaxing.
"You have a lot of advocacy these days," said Montgomery County Del. Lucille Maurer, who started her political career three decades ago when she joined a PTA and got involved in school issues. "People who do have time to volunteer prefer an advocacy role. A lot of women do volunteer are working for the women's movement."
The women who were party activists "have dropped out or are working or maybe involved in advocacy groups," she said. "A lot of women felt that their work with politics involved making coffee, not policy."
According to Harriet Hentages, executive director of the national League of Women Voters, "we are seeing the effects of more women going back to work, of more demands being made by a faster-paced society. There's less time.
"When you're talking about volunteers, you're talking about bodies and time. The quality of people involved is still high. But there's fewer of them and they have less time."
According to one official of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, "If there's a controversial issue, a question of school policy or a school closing, people will come out of the woodwork. But day to day, getting volunteers in is a problem."
And Sandy Lindsay of Alexandria said, "A school with heavy parent participation is the exception in our area . . . It's difficult to find people even for simple tasks, assisting in the libraries, helping the school nurse, tutors and things like that. Even baking cookies -- people say 'I just don't have the time.'"
There are exceptions. Sheila Brandt, who heads Montgomery County's Republican Party -- a minority party that has always had trouble getting volunteers -- says things are no different now. Fairfax County's Democrats, likewise, have not noticed a perceptible falloff of interest.
Out of necessity, the civic groups that are losing membership are finding ways to cope: the Montgomery League of Women Voters still puts out its voters guide for the primary and general elections, but "people have to do more than one job" to get it done, said president Barbara Heyman.
And, as Sarah Lahr, head of Fairfax County's school Volunteer Advisory Committes sees it, "We are needing to face up to finding new sources of volunteers . . . retired persons, perhaps."
Nationwide, in fact, the numbers of older people moving into volunteer activities has helped swell the number of volunteers counted by national organizations like Volunteer and by the federal government. But they tend to work with service organizations -- like hospitals -- and not civic organizations.
Georgene Noffsinger doesn't know where her replacements in the PTAs or the political organizations are going to come from. She certainly does not want to see the groups decay or disappear. But, she says, "I did my share over the years of painting posters and chairing committees and raising money. It just doesn't appeal to me any more."