The American win-win: Volunteerism

Text: Alexandra Pasternak-Jackson 

EVERY YEAR, millions of Americans come together to do remarkable things as volunteers. They offer time, skills, and monetary support, playing a crucial role in American society, and also the world.

It is thanks to American volunteers, non-profits and philanthropy that we have the current Polio vaccine, and several other key developments in modern medicine. According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, one in four Americans volunteers through a non-profit, civic or faith-based organization, and nearly two thirds help their neighbors through informal service (mowing lawns, babysitting, etc). Slightly more than half the population donated to charitable organizations.

A hallmark of American culture

Service to others has always been a priority for Americans and a hallmark of American culture and democracy since its founding. In 1736, Benjamin Franklin founded the first volunteer firehouse, and kick-started a tradition that gave way to the founding of social service volunteer institutions geared towards improving the lives of citizens. Along with faith-based organizations, associations such as the Salvation Army (1865), the American Red Cross (1881), the YMCA (1851), became core elements of American civic life.

In fact, in the 1830s famous French political scientist, Alexis de Tocqueville, was already impressed by America’s inclination to solve problems through voluntary associations. In his book, “Democracy in America,” he wrote, “In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded.”

That spirit, so deeply ingrained in US culture is alive and well today, and some would argue uniquely American. Organized community service and philanthropic giving is not common in most countries. According to Giving USA Foundation and Oper Center for Public Opinion Research, Americans gave, per capita, seven times as much as Germans, and 14 times as much as Italians, and Americans were 15 percent more likely to volunteer time than the Dutch, and 21 percent more likely than the Swiss. ..

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