Being a volunteer always takes heart. But by committing time and expertise to being a small-business counselor at the Service Corps of Retired Executives, you can use your brain as well.

Since 1964, SCORE, an affiliate of the U.S. Small Business Administration, has helped more than 8 million entrepreneurs navigate more carefully through the often tough world of business. In 2008, the agency helped more than 54,000 small, Black-owned businesses. African-American firms make up 15 percent of SCORE’s clients, nearly three times the ratio of the representation of Black businesses in the nation.

The long name of SCORE is actually a misnomer, since 22 percent of the group’s counselors are still working. That’s true of Aretha Olivarez, 41, a Black, Orlando, Fla.-based nonprofit consultant and author of The Best Guide for Nonprofit Corporations. Olivarez got involved with SCORE a year ago because the local chapter was regularly sending customers to her for advice.

The consultant and one-time Navy IT professional and wedding-cake business-owner, says she loves giving back to the community through SCORE in her free time. “You make a difference in others’ lives. I’ve met some wonderful people. You get a lot of thank-yous,” she says. The average SCORE volunteer nationally puts in two hours of service in an office or online a week, but in her office five hours a week is the norm, she says.

With the job market so gloomy, Olivarez notes, most people coming into the SCORE office where she is based are looking for advice on how to start up their own businesses, a goal many have always wanted to achieve. The advice these would-be entrepreneurs receive ranges from how to write a business plan and locating a business to taxes and financing. In addition to providing one-on-one counseling, Olivarez gives them lots of SCORE-developed handouts to take home. Sometimes the best advice she can give a client is not to
get into business, she says.

“It’s tough because we try not to be dream killers. We want to support them and want them to come back and hear them say ‘we did it.’ But sometimes we have to say this is something you are not ready for,” the business volunteer says. She recalls once urging a woman who wanted to set up a massage storefront not to do so because she had never given massages.

SCORE volunteers are not put to work blind. “This is not a place where you show up, put on a T-shirt and start,” Olivarez says. Before they meet with their first client, SCORE volunteers are given a couple of months of training in all aspects of business, she notes. She adds, you also should not be afraid if you can’t answer all of a client’s questions because SCORE customers are often served by teams of business pros with a wide range of expertise.

SCORE advice is free to clients except for chapter workshops that can range from $30 to $50. Nationally, there are 11,200 in-person SCORE counselors and 1,200 who do some or all of their service online. A spokesperson for the national headquarters says you should not be worried that the advice you give as a counselor could open you up to lawsuits. SCORE volunteers are protected under the Federal Tort Claims Act and are not subject to civil claims or lawsuits connected with SCORE activities and will not be held liable for paying monetary damages, even if they committed the torts. The federal government would take over and defend the action and make payments, the spokesperson says.

SCORE receives most of its money from the federal government, with roughly 20 percent from a connected foundation. The group’s national budget for fiscal 2008, which ended on Sept. 30, was nearly $5.5 million. To find your nearest SCORE location, or for more information on volunteering and how to become a SCORE counselor, go to www.score.org/volunteer.html on the Web, or call toll free at 800-634-0245.
SCORE has 370 offices nationwide.     

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