Contributing to the welfare of others and/or acting voluntarily without expectation of return.


The Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines service as "contribution to the welfare of
others." Service can also be defined as doing something voluntarily for someone else without expectation of
receiving something in return.

Historical Roots

The history of service is vast and varied. From the days of the underground railroads to escape slavery to
those who helped the Commonwealth and their fellow neighbors in the creation of the original thirteen
colonies, service has been an integral aspect of life in the United States. The types of service have evolved
over the course of time often based on the needs and challenges that unfolded.


In The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism (Coles, 31-67), Robert Coles "divide[s] service into
categories according to the kinds of motives [he has] seen in children and youths and older people [he has]
come to know who have chosen to give their time to others" (33). The types of service identified by Coles are
social and political struggle, community service, personal gestures and encounters, charity, religiously
sanctioned action, government-sanctioned action (e.g., AmeriCorps and VISTA), and service to country. Coles
has "left room for overlap, for a blend of motives and deeds that properly cautions us against airtight
conclusions and formulations" (33). "No matter the kind of service rendered, the sponsorship, the age and the
background of the person who is volunteering, and the nature (and location) of the work being done, the
ultimate worth of the effort will depend a good deal on how a particular person manages to connect with those
others being in some way taught or healed or advised or assisted: the chemistry of giving and receiving as it
works back and forth between individuals in one or another situation" (64-5).


Service is essential to the betterment of civil society and the quality of life of people nationwide. Service
gets things done that may never happen otherwise, as well as empowers people to make a positive difference in
someone else's life and/or the community. Service is rooted in American culture and provides resources and
support to various organizations and people. Service is also a vehicle by which citizens stay informed about
their community and impact the community through their action and personal responsibility. In addition,
service contributes to what is often called the common good. In Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment
in a Complex World
, "'the common good' refers to the well-being of the whole earth community-its safety,
the integrity of basic institutions and practices, and the sustaining of the living systems of our planet
home. The common good also suggests broadly shared goals toward which the members of the community
strive-human flourishing, prosperity, and moral development" (Daloz et al, 16).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Philanthropy is defined as "goodwill to fellowmen; esp.: active effort to promote human welfare" (Merriam
Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
). Robert Payton defines philanthropy as "voluntary action for the public
good". Since service is about contributing to the welfare of others, service and philanthropy often go hand
in hand. Payton writes, "Voluntary acts of compassion and acts of community are always needed, in all
societies, and always will be" (Payton, 41). "There are two central ideas embraced by [philanthropy] in its
present usage: compassion and community. Community relates to the things that bring us and hold us together.
Compassion, then, has a strong emotional quality; it is not thoughtless, but it is not calculating, either"
(44). According to Payton, "the most serious problem facing the sector is not its lack of compassion, but its
lack of community" (69). Service and philanthropy add to the creation and the continued prosperity of community.

Ties to the K-12 Areas of Social Studies

Civics class may be the most natural in which to discuss concepts like civic virtue, moral development, and
community. Service may naturally be taught in Civics class. More ideally it can be tied to curricular themes
throughout a student's educational experience.

Key Related Areas

Motivation, giving, philanthropy, volunteer(ing), citizenship, social responsibility, activism, mentoring,
altruism, calling, civil rights, community, idealism, service learning.

Service Learning

There is a growing trend towards service learning and this may be incorporated into the discussion of
service. In "Service: Linking School to Life" by Ernest Boyer, Boyer suggests that "a service program begins
with clearly stated educational objectives" and "should be carefully introduced and creatively promoted."
"Service activity should be directed not just to the community but also toward the school itself [and] should
be something more than preparation for a career. Students should not only go out to serve; they should also
be asked to write about their experience and, if possible, to discuss with others the lessons they have
learned" (Kendall, 102-3). "It's particularly important to build the service commitment and habit of young
people. We cannot take for granted that it will happen. Many who have studied the generosity of Americans
have warned and predicted that some day we will lose this tradition. Even in his admiring portrait of us more
than a hundred years ago, de Tocqueville feared that we could not sustain our 'habits of the heart'"
(O'Connell, 125).

Important People Related to the Topic

Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Robert Coles, Robert Bellah, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa
Parks, John F. Kennedy, Harris Wofford, Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, Florence Nightingale,
Clara Barton.

Important Related Non-Profit Organizations

United Way (can provide a list of area agencies), AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, Red Cross, 4-H, Boy Scouts, Girl
Scouts, community foundations, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, YMCA, YWCA, religious organizations, service clubs,
fraternal groups, Habitat for Humanity, Kiwanis Clubs, Rotary Clubs, Jaycees.


Bellah, Robert, et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley:
California, 1985.

Bremner, Robert H. American Philanthropy. Second Ed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960.

Coles, Robert. The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism. Boston: Houghton, 1993.
---. The
Moral Intelligence of Children: How to Raise A Moral Child
. New York: Plume, 1997.

Daloz, Laurent A. Parks, Cheryl H. Keen, James P. Keen, and Sharon Daloz Parks. Common Fire: Leading Lives
of Commitment in a Complex World
. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Delve, Cecilia, Suzanne D. Mintz, and Greig M. Stewart. "Community Service as Values Education." New
Directions for Student Services
50 (1990).

Kendall, Jane C. and Associates. Combining Service and Learning: A Resource Book For Community and Public
. 3 vols. Raleigh: National Society for Internships and Experiential Education, 1990.

O'Connell, Brian. Voices from the Heart: In Celebration of America's Volunteers. Jossey-Bass: San
Francisco, 1999.

Parsons, Cynthia. Serving to Learn, Learning to Serve: Civics and Service from A to Z. Thousand Oaks:
Corwin Press, 1996.

Payton, Robert. Voluntary Action for the Public Good. New York: Macmillan, 1988.

Putnam, Robert. "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" Journal of Democracy 1995, 16 (1):

Sommers, Christina and Fred, Eds. Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life. 4th Ed. New York: Harcourt, 1997.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.