Why Volunteerism Is an Essential American Value

3 minute read

IntereExchange participants prepared meals to help alleviate hunger.
IntereExchange participants prepared meals to help alleviate hunger.
Image courtesy of Nancy Perry

Volunteering is a part of American culture.

Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Writing about his travels through the United States in the 1830s, the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville frequently commented on Americans’ tendency to form voluntary civil associations. He was impressed by their desire to come together with their friends and neighbors to accomplish community, commercial, and personal goals. This was, he felt, an important foundation for the egalitarian and democratic society that he studied.

Au Pair USA participants helped provide clothes and toys to local children.
Au Pair USA participants helped provide clothes and toys to local children.
Image courtesy of Lisbeth Ceriani

This commitment to volunteerism has been a hallmark of American civic life since the country’s founding. It was Benjamin Franklin who formed the first volunteer fire department in 1736, and many American militias during the Revolutionary War were comprised of volunteers. Some of the most well-known American charitable organizations, such as the YMCA and the American Red Cross, were founded in the 19th century.

Many American youth today are exposed to volunteering through religious youth groups or scouting organizations, and many large companies arrange volunteering opportunities for their employees. Nearly every church, school, or local community center has volunteers who feed the poor, teach, tend to the sick and elderly, support political causes, coach kids, or rescue animals, among numerous other causes. Not only does volunteering allow people to help others through direct action, but it fosters an incredible sense of community as well.

Participants had fun while helping others on J-Day.
Participants had fun while helping others on J-Day.
Image courtesy of Nancy Perry

How many Americans are volunteering?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts a study on volunteerism in the U.S. every year. The latest statistics from 2015 showed that:

  • 62.6 million Americans volunteered
  • 24.9% of Americans over 16 volunteered
  • The median number of volunteer hours is 52 per year
  • 33% volunteered with religious organizations, followed by 25% in educational or youth service organizations
  • We might think people who do not work or are retired have the most time, but the BLS found that employed people ages 35 to 44 were most likely to volunteer.

Au pairs celebrated Earth Day by doing conservation work.
Au pairs celebrated Earth Day by doing conservation work.
Image courtsey of Tauryn Beeman

National Volunteer Week is about getting involved and giving back.

National Volunteer Week was founded in 1974 to encourage people to volunteer and draw attention to the power it has to bring about social change. This year, National Volunteer Week is celebrate from April 23 to 29 and it is a wonderful opportunity for everybody to check out the volunteering options in their community. Proactive, hands-on service is an amazing way to meet like-minded people and give something back to your community at the same time. Whether you are looking to use your professional skills to help others, paint a school, or serve a meal at a soup kitchen, you will be able to find something to interest you!

Get involved in your area!

These resources can help you find organizations in your area:

Au pairs volunteered at the IronMan triathlon.
Au pairs volunteered at the IronMan triathlon.
Image courtesy of Suzanne Miller

Citizen service is the very American idea that we meet our challenges not as isolated individuals but as members of a true community, with all of us working together. Our mission is nothing less than to spark a renewed sense of obligation, a new sense of duty, a new season of service… Former President Bill Clinton

Elizabeth Cummings By

Liz got the travel bug as a teenager when she volunteered in Mexico. After extensive travel, interning and studying abroad, she is excited to help others fulfill their dreams of experiencing another culture through InterExchange’s Career Training USA program.

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