Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Historical roots of voluntary action for the common good.


Voluntarism is the “principle or system of doing something by or relying on voluntary action or volunteers” (Merriam Webster). In the philanthropic or nonprofit sector voluntarism plays a crucial as all nonprofit organizations rely on volunteers in some form. Voluntarism has proven benefits for people who engage in voluntary activities ranging from better health to career related advantages.

Historic Roots

Voluntarism in the US has a long and diverse history. The "tradition of mutual support" has been an important element of American life since the colonial times. People then did not have a government to rely on therefore they turned to each other for help when they needed. However, it was not only the new colonists that voluntarily assisted each other as Squanto, a young native American’s boy story shows it. Early pilgrims owed a lot to Squanto and other native people who taught them how to survive in the new land.

In the early 1600s, John Winthrop gave a sermon on, "A Model of Christian Charity" and inspired many to express their love of God in charitable acts (Gross 2002, 32). In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin – inspired by the growth of charities in England - organized Junto, an association for young men that served as a model for similar organizations in the colonies. He also founded a "volunteer fire company and a circulating library" to foster education (Hall 2006, 34). Volunteer associations also played an impotant role in the Revolution and in organizing the republican government.  By the time Tocqueville, the French political scientist toured the US in the 1830s, he could observe a vast number of voluntary associations in the colonies.

In the 19th century, voluntarism became even more popular. During the Civil War, thousands joined in the war effort voluntarily. Women for the first time started to formally organize and Ladies Aid Societies were created to supply hospitals and recruit nurses (Firor Scott 1993). For many women, the war had just been the first step and “in the following decades women in unprecedented numbers created and joined organizations” (Firor Scott 1993, 77). Still deprived of traditional career opportunities, many  educated middle-class women immersed themselves in charitable work and reformist activism. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union fought against alcohol abuse while the numerous missionary societies provided educational opportunity for women. Assisting people in need was a primary concern for women’s organizations. Jane Addams’ settlement house movement and Dorothea Dix’s crusade for the rights of people in mental health institutions are famous examples (Hall 2006, 44).

Voluntarism did not lose its momentum in the 20th century. Volunteers joined the efforts in the first and second World War on the front and at home. Although after the Great Depression the federal government assumed greater responsibility in aiding unemployed, elderly and other disadvantaged groups, volunteers continued to play an important role in addressing all sorts of social issues (Ott and Dicke 2016). In 1961, President Kennedy established the Peace Corps to provide service opportunities for American volunteers abroad (Peace Corps). The number of nonprofit organizations and volunteer opportunities has greatly increased ever since then.


In 2015, 24.9% of American adults volunteered 7.9 billion hours of service (Urban Institute). Volunteerism does not only provide free labor to nonprofits but many argue that volunteerism plays a vital role in maintaining a democratic society because it helps build citizenships skills such as negotiation and public speaking (Ott and Dicke 2016). It also allows people to connect with each other and enhance their social networks thus it strengthens communities as well.

Moreover, engaging in voluntary work has a wide range of benefits for the volunteer as well. People who volunteer have higher odds of getting a job after being out of work and volunteering is associated with higher self-efficacy and better health as well. For example people who volunteer tend to have lower rates of depression and they are also more likely to live longer. These benefits are greater for older volunteers, either because “they are more likely to face higher incidence of illness or because volunteering provides them with physical and social activity and a sense of purpose at a time when their social roles are changing” (Corporation for National and Community Service). 

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Voluntarism is at the heart of the philanthropic sector. All nonprofits - even the most bureaucratical ones - rely on volunteers at least as members of their boards. In many organizations though, volunteers do more than just sit on boards, they organize events, provide services, raise funds or educate their fellow citizens. Volunteers most often not only provide their time to nonprofits, they are also more likely to donate to nonprofit causes (Ott and Dicke 2016).

Researchers found (Clary and Snyder 1999, 157) that volunteering has a multimotivational nature, which means that "different volunteers pursue different goals, and the same volunteer may be pursuing more than one goal". Volunteering can serve different functions in people’s lives: it provides opportunities for the expression of values, it deepens understanding of the world, promotes self-enhancement. It can advance one’s career, it helps create social relationships and has a self-protecting function as well. For most volunteers, expression of values, seeking understanding or enhancement are the most important motivations, however, the order of the importance of functions varies by groups. The career function for example is more important for younger people, while the social function can be crucial for older people who lost their former roles or status – such as employment - in society (Konrath 2013). Clary and Snyder (1999) also argue that tailored experiences are more likely to make people continue their volunteer work. People who receive greater benefits related to the functions that are more important to them are more satisfied and therefore more likely to stay.

Ties to Areas of Study

Voluntarism has played a major role in both American and world history. In addition it is important in terms of economics. Since volunteer labor is free, in organizations that use volunteers effectively, funding becomes available for other expenses. Also many corporations and for-profit entities are encouraging voluntarism on the part of their employees. In some cases, companies claim that these voluntarism efforts raise employee morale and can increase corporate profits in the long run. In addition, associations are important in maintaining democracy in America. Some researchers such as Robert Putnam claim that the interest in association is decreasing and Americans are less interested in being a part of voluntary organizations. Others disagree. Regardless, associations offer individuals an opportunity to maintain their democratic rights, and this is vital to the success of society.


Important people:

Dorothy Day: was a writer, editor and social activist of Catholic faith who fought for several social causes including women’s rights and pacifism (anti-war movement). With Peter Maurin, she co-funded the newspaper “Catholic Worker” and lived in voluntary poverty with the needy she served. She “received communion from Pope Paul VI at the 1967 International Congress of the Laity, and addressed the 1976 Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia” (Dorothy Day Guild).

Dorothea Dix: was a social reformer in the 19th century who advocated for the welfare of the mentally ill and prisoners. Due to her efforts, the US established several institutions and created better circumstances for these populations (History). During the Civil War, she served as superintendent of female nurses as well.

Clara Barton: was an “American nurse, suffragist and humanitarian” who is best known for organizing the American Red Cross (History). During the Civil War, she independently started to organize relief for wounded soldiers. After the war, she became the first president of the American Red Cross after its foundation in 1881. She volunteered in several domestic and foreign wars.

Jane Addams: was a social reformer and peace activist at the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century. She co-funded one of the earliest and most famous settlement houses, the Hull House in Chicago. These establishments provided services for the immigrants and the poor with the aid of young and educated middle and upper class men and women.  Among her many other civic roles, Addams helped found the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy and was president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections as well.

Benjamin Franklin: see here

William Penn: was one of the best known members of the Quaker movement in the 1600s. The Quakers followed their “Inner Light”, they refused to join the army and they did not believe in state-imposed religion. In 1681, Penn founded the new colony of Pennsylvania where “people from a wide range of traditions” lived together (Hammack 1998, 46). Penn was a great proponent of voluntary efforts to improve the world and taking responsibility for others in need.


Key ideas

Corporate social responsibility (corporate citizenship): refers to “efforts by businesses to work with stakeholders in achieving improved economic, environmental and social performance” (Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship). One of the most common approaches to CSR is corporate voluntarism. Employee volunteer programs have benefits for the community and for the company as well as it increases employee engagement and it provides opportunities for team-building.

Social Capital: is a term used to refer to “a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks” (Harvard Kennedy School). Social capital works through different channels: information flows, norms of reciprocity (mutual aid), collective action and “broader identities”. When a neighbor watches over another one’s home or when members of a diabetes support group email each other – those are examples of social capital. It can be found in friendship networks, neighborhoods or civic clubs among others. Researchers differentiate between bonding and linking social capital, the former refers to connections between members of different social groups while the latter is found between members of the same group.

Service learning: see the related briefing paper.


Related Non-profit Organizations

Corporation for National and Community Service: is a federal agency that help Americans get involved in voluntary service at 50 000 locations throughout the country. They partner with thousands of nonprofit and faith-based groups to change communities (http://www.nationalservice.gov/).

Peace Corps: provides volunteer opportunities for Americans in local communities abroad. The organization was established by President Kennedy in 1961. They promote a “better understanding of Americans on the parts of the people served” and a “better understanding of other people on the parts of Americans”.

Points of Light: is a nonprofit organization founded by President George W. H. Bush that promotes a culture of volunteerism by programs, events and campaigns. (http://www.pointsoflight.org/). They have worked with millions of volunteers since their foundation.

United Way: is the world’s largest privately funded nonprofit organization. It grew out of the nation’s first united campaign in Colorado, aiming to benefit health and welfare agencies at the end of the 19th century. The organization today works with millions of volunteers and encourages public policy change related to community issues (http://www.unitedway.org/).

VolunteerMatch: is an organization that helps people find volunteer opportunities throughout the US. They help nonprofit organizations to better leverage the work of volunteers and they offer corporate solutions for volunteering as well. (http://www.volunteermatch.org/)


Reflection question:

What type of volunteer activity would suit you? What are your main motivations for volunteering?

How Youth Can Volunteer

  • Engage in service learning activities at their school.
  • Organize a canned food drives.
  • Write an article in their school paper on current issues.
  • Educate younger siblings about social issues and how to make a difference.
  • Join their church youth group and become involved in service projects.
  • Organize sports teams to do a service project.
  • Donate used clothing to a community clothes closet.
  • Help elderly persons in nursing homes.
  • Tutor a younger student.


Useful Journals and Magazines

Journal of Volunteer Administration published by the Association for Volunteer Administration (AVA)

Volunteer Leadership, published by Points of Light

Volunteering, The Magazine published by the National Center for Volunteering


Bremner, Robert H. American Philanthropy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Clary, E. Gil, Mark Snyder. The Motivations to Volunteer: Theoretical and Practical Considerations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1999, 8-156.

Corporation for National and Community Service. http://www.nationalservice.gov

Firor Scott, Anne. Natural allies: women’s associations in American history. Illini Books edition, 1993.

Giving and Volunteering in the United States, Findings from a National Survey, 1996 Edition. Washington, DC: Independent Sector, 1996.

Giving in America, Toward a Stronger Voluntary Sector - Report of the Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs. 1975.

Gross, Robert A. “Giving in America: From Charity to Philanthropy”. In: Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History, edited by: Lawrence J. Friedman, Mark D. McGarvie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Hall, Peter Dobkin. “A Historical Overview of Philanthropy, Voluntary Associations, and Nonprofit Organizations in the United States, 1600-2000”. In: The Nonprofit Sector. A Research Handbook, edited by: Walter W. Powell, Richard Steinberg. Yale University, 2006.

Hammack, David C. Making the Nonprofit Sector in the United States. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

History. Clara Barton. http://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/clara-barton

History. Dorothea Dix. http://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/dorothea-lynde-dix

Konrath, Sara. “The Power of Philanthropy and Volunteering”. In: Interventions and Policies to Enhance Wellbeing: A Complete Reference Guide, Volume VI., edited by: Felicity A. Huppert, Cary l. Cooper. John Wiley & Sons, New York: 2014.

Merriam Webster. Voluntarism. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/voluntarism

Ott, Seven J., Lisa A. Dicke. The Nature of the Nonprofit Sector. Boulder: Westview Press, 2016.

Peace Corps. https://www.peacecorps.gov/

The Dorothy Day Guild. About Her Life. http://dorothydayguild.org/

Urban Institute. Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy. http://www.urban.org/policy-centers/center-nonprofits-and-philanthropy



This paper was developed by a students 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.