Historical roots of voluntary action for the common good.


"Voluntarism is the voluntary (acting of one's own accord) participation in a certain action, or a system based on this." Webster's Dictionary

Historic Roots

The historic roots of voluntarism are difficult to trace. Throughout history there have been numerous voluntary efforts that were never documented and hence, it is unknown where and when voluntarism began. In all likelihood it has existed for thousands of years in various forms. However, the earliest records for the United States indicate that perhaps it began with the Native Americans, as they greeted Columbus when he reached the New World. The following selected information does not begin to include all of the voluntarism efforts that have taken place throughout history. However, it gives an overview of some of the major American historical events that have evolved voluntarism and some of the important people associated with those events.


Squanto and other Native Americans welcomed the Pilgrims to the New World and introduced them to survival techniques and food gathering tips among other things. "He (Squanto) taught them, in the words of William Bradford, 'how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died" (Bremner 8). This was an early form of voluntarism, in that Squanto spent much time and effort helping the Pilgrims acclimate to life in America. He was more than a friend to them, because he dedicated his life to sharing his knowledge with the Pilgrims.

William Penn

Penn established the Quakers in the late 1600s. He was a proponent of improving the world by taking responsibility for others, as well as for oneself. "To Penn and the Quakers there was no conflict between the efforts to live better in the world and endeavors to improve it. The two were inseparably bound together, and the one was the means of achieving the other" (Bremner 9). Because of their kind and caring mannerism, the Quakers have been termed "The People Called Friends."

Cotton Mather

Mather lived during the colonial period and "is considered to be one of the commanding figures in the history of American philanthropy" (Bremner 12). He supported the formation of associations and he believed that people needed to be gathered together to support charitable causes. Mather believed that one should, "Keep a list of the needy in your neighborhood, he urged his readers; to be on the lookout for persons who may require help, and seize each opportunity to be useful with 'rapturous assiduity" (Bremner 13).

Benjamin Franklin

Franklin was a civic leader in Pennsylvania. "His most notable success came through his effort to promote the creation of a 'voluntary association' for the defense of the colony (Philadelphia) during a period of British war with France. A voluntary militia was necessary because the Quakers who them controlled the Pennsylvania legislature refused to abandon their pacifist commitments even in the face of war" (Hammack 71). This was one of the first voluntary associations to become a model for future associations of the same type.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Tocqueville came to America and discovered the vast number of voluntary associations that were in existence here. He was impressed that these organizations joined together to accomplish many tasks. He said, "The Americans make associations to give entertainment, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools" (Hammack 150). Associations are very much the foundation of voluntarism in America.

Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was composed of a network of volunteers who offered their time and expertise in leading blacks safely out of the South and into the freedom of the North. The volunteers often risked their lives for the blacks and they did not always meet with success. "Levi Coffin, reputed head of the Underground Railroad, is said to have assisted about one hundred fugitives a year over a period of more than thirty years. The intrepid Harriet Tubman, herself a fugitive, repeatedly returned to the South to lead her fellows to freedom" (Bremner 71).

Civil War

During the Civil War, voluntarism became extremely popular and volunteers accomplished much of the work done during the war. There were volunteer soldiers from both the North and South during the war. In addition, soldiers' aid societies were created to aid in the war effort. By the end of the Civil War, there were over 15,000 of these voluntary associations established. The Civil War was also the start of formalized voluntarism within women's circles. Many women volunteered by packing supplies, cooking food, or serving as much-needed nurses, while their husbands, brothers, and fathers served as soldiers.

Dorthea Dix

Dorthea Dix was the Superintendent of Female Nurses. She recruited and trained women to provide medical care for wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Over 3,200 women served as nurses with union forces. In many cases, the women took soldiers into their homes in order to give them proper care and to aid in their recovery.

Clara Barton

Clara Barton organized relief supplies during the Civil war and served as a nurse. She eventually established the American Red Cross in 1881. The Red Cross was set up to serve as a relief organization when natural disaster struck. "She (Barton) wanted to give temporary help to normal people who were victims of abnormal misfortune and to render such assistance as she could to restore them to their normal way of life" (Bremner 90). Both Dix and Barton were two of the first known female volunteers in America.

Jane Addams

Jane Addams opened the settlement house, Hull House, in 1889. "She hoped to establish ties of sympathy between the rich and the poor.Miss Addams and the other settlement leaders went to live with the poor. The settlement houses were designed to offer educated young men and women a means of getting in touch with the 'starvation struggle' of the masses. Once the settlement workers had established friendly relations with their underprivileged neighbors and learned their needs, they could join with them in efforts to improve the common life" (Bremner 109). Addams was a model volunteer, in that she dedicated her life to improving urban conditions for the less fortunate.

Peace Corps

President Kennedy established the Peace Corps to aid both the United States and other countries. Generally, those who join the Peace Corps spend two years serving as volunteers, often abroad in underdeveloped countries. Following the start of the Peace Corps, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) was also established to encourage voluntarism within the United States. The Peace Corps is a good way for individuals to immerse themselves in voluntarism for a significant period of time.


Voluntarism still is an important part of society today. Without volunteers many non-profit organizations would have to pay for many more services. In addition, voluntarism unites groups of people under a common cause, empowering them to make a difference in society. Throughout history voluntarism has often grown in importance during times of need, such as during wars. Volunteers have provided significant resources. Volunteering has become common. According to Giving and Volunteering in the United States, most Americans volunteer because they feel compassion towards people in need. In addition, volunteering makes them feel needed. In 1995, 93 million Americans volunteered their time at an average of 4.3 hours per week.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Voluntarism is at the heart of the philanthropic sector. The human act of volunteering came long before funding, as evidenced by the aid that Squanto and the Indians provided to the Pilgrims. While non-profit organizations need funding to reach their goals, they are also generally in need of volunteer help. Without voluntarism efforts, it is doubtful that the philanthropic sector would exist. In addition, voluntarism often leads to increased financial giving on the part of the individuals involved in volunteering there. This increased giving benefits the non-profit organizations and the philanthropic sector.

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.

Key Related Ideas

Corporate Voluntarism
Non-profit organizations
Service learning

Related Non-profit Organizations

Conference Board
Local volunteer centers
Points of Light (serves as a resource for voluntarism)
United Way

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.

Related Web Sites




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.

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.

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

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.