Volunteerism in the Eighties

December 12, 1980

Report Outline
Growing Citizen Involvement
Traditional Voluntary Role
Private Need, Public Policy
Special Focus

Growing Citizen Involvement

Estimates of the Number of Volunteers

In Beverly Hills, a physician treats poor patients free of charge. In New York, a citizens' association cares for trees along the city's streets. In Cleveland, high school students help tutor elementary pupils. What makes these otherwise ordinary jobs noteworthy is that they are all done by volunteers. Acting individually or in groups, volunteers perform a myriad of social services in communities throughout the country. In a society whose latest commandment seems to be “me first,” the contributions of volunteers often are taken for granted. But according to John Gardner, former director of Common Cause and now head of the board of directors of Independent Sector, a coalition of charitable and philanthropic organizations, if volunteerism “were to disappear from our national life, we would be less distinctively American. Volunteer work enhances our creativity…, nurtures individual responsibility, stirs life at the grass roots and reminds us that we are born free.”

No one is sure how many Americans actually do volunteer work each year. A 1979 Gallup Poll indicated that 70 percent of the nation's adults were willing to participate in neighborhood betterment activities or assist in social service tasks. The last major study of volunteering, conducted in 1974 by ACTION, the federal volunteer agency, and the U.S. Census Bureau, found that 24 percent of the population — or 37 million people over the age of 13 — were volunteering their time and effort in one way or another. The study, “Americans Volunteer: 1974,” said that volunteers worked an annual total of 137 million hours, the equivalent of 3.4 million people working a 40-hour week. However, the survey only covered the activities of organized volunteers, and much of the volunteer and charity work done in the United States is spontaneous. The American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel, a private philanthropy research group, estimates that if informal volunteers were counted along with organized volunteers, the total would be as high as 68 million people each year.

Part of the difficulty in determining the number of volunteers lies in the problem of defining what volunteering is. “Given the broadened definitions of citizen involvement…, it may be impossible to reach a satisfactory consensus of what we mean by ‘volunteer,’” said a report published recently by the National Center for Citizen Involvement. “Indeed, volunteering as we now understand it is such an integral part of American life that we can safety conclude that everyone, at some time or another in his or her life, is a volunteer.”

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Peace Corps, National Service, and Volunteerism
Jan. 11, 2013  Peace Corps Challenges
Jun. 30, 2006  National Service
Dec. 13, 1996  The New Volunteerism
Jun. 25, 1993  National Service
Jan. 25, 1991  Peace Corps' Challenges in the 1990s
Oct. 31, 1986  Blueprints for National Service
Jan. 25, 1985  International Relief Agencies
Dec. 12, 1980  Volunteerism in the Eighties
Jun. 15, 1979  Future of the Peace Corps
Apr. 03, 1963  Domestic Peace Corps
Nov. 28, 1962  Peace Corps Expansion
Jan. 04, 1961  Government Youth Corps
Charities and Philanthropy