The idea of volunteering may exist to some degree everywhere but, in the US, volunteering seems to be in the blood. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics even publishes an annual report on the state of volunteerism in the US. It reports that more than 25 percent of Americans actively volunteer in one capacity or another. A 2013 Gallup poll puts the numbers even higher, with 65 percent of Americans claiming to volunteer and more than 80 percent practicing some form of charitable giving. The tendency to think that voluntary organizations/charities will take care of everything seems to be a uniquely American (and sort of puritanical/conservative) way of looking at things. I suppose it comes down to the American obsession with doing things for oneself and the desire to pay the least amount of tax possible as well as the tendency for Americans to be quite active in church/religious activities, which are often charitable in nature.
Volunteer organizations and efforts spring up as a result, and there is a value placed on volunteer experience. Not just internships that are often required when a person goes to university – but just volunteering as a separate endeavor from one’s work or personal life. The volunteer mindset and philosophy is ingrained. When I was in school and later when I was just living and working, the idea of volunteering time at organizations that needed unpaid help somehow appealed to the part of me that obsesses over continuous learning.
Many of the volunteer functions that are seen as voluntary or charitable matters are not seen that way at all outside the United States – many of the services provided sit squarely on the shoulders of the government (what else are taxes paid for?). Americans are apparently a “nation of givers” (an article that’s a few years old puts some statistics on it, comparing charitable donations and volunteer time Americans give against the money and time other countries’ people give). Sure, the US tax code makes charitable giving a way to avoid paying as much tax as one might otherwise, which is why corporations often give so much. But for individuals this is not a driver of their giving (only about one-third of Americans apparently itemize their taxes, meaning they don’t get the deductions to which they are entitled).
I had this discussion many times in particular with French people. My ex-boyfriend (a Frenchie) could not comprehend why I was volunteering spare time – my own free time – to basically donate labor to organizations that should be supported, in his mind, by public funding. While I might have agreed with him about what functions governments should provide, in the absence, I saw nothing amiss or “wasteful” about giving my time to further some cause or help someone else. Granted, some volunteering is not necessarily a tangible “help”. Being a volunteer art-museum docent does not have the hands-on, immediate value that cooking in a soup kitchen or building housing for low-income families does. But it’s not always about that kind of obvious help. It’s also about education, culture and getting something from what you give. When I volunteered at an art museum, for example, I gained experience, knowledge and skills that I would never get elsewhere. In those situations, the volunteer is not just giving – aside from the general sense of “doing something good”, there is always some kind of payoff.
Volunteering for Americans encompasses a kind of pride and mutual promise of giving and getting. A nation that has major federal programs, entirely based on volunteering, such as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, must be at least somewhat driven by the idea put forth by John F Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
It’s not only in America that volunteering exists – it’s just not woven into the fabric of everyday life everywhere else. Recently I applied to be a volunteer board member for a few public entities in Glasgow, Scotland. This is yet another kind of volunteering – I thought the experience would be quite valuable and I knew I would provide a very different perspective to the boards to which I applied (I was invited to interview for one of them but then my situation changed, and regrettably I could not attend). This was not a lowly “scrub-the-floor” kind of volunteer experience but instead one in which experienced professionals were expected to bring expertise and ideas to the table – and still voluntary (with some travel costs reimbursed). I regret not being able to do it because I actually thought it, like most of my past volunteer experiences, would be enriching.
On a similar note, in a relatively recent Forbes article, Baby Boomers were in focus as not volunteering as much as they should or could – or as much as other parts of the American population. Volunteer organizations, apparently, are finally starting to catch on that they need to target the retired and retiring Baby Boomers to capture their experience and skills. The contention is that Boomers want to do something meaningful and results-oriented with their volunteer time rather than something like stuffing envelopes or making phone calls.
“According to the Volunteering in the United States survey, “providing professional or management assistance, including serving on a board or committee” is the second most popular form of volunteering for Americans over 55, after “collecting, preparing, distributing or serving food.”
I suppose, aside from that stubborn “we can do it ourselves” kind of attitude, there is also a “we’re in this together” attitude that leads to volunteering and the types of people who put themselves out there as volunteers. We don’t have to wait for some official entity to qualify our idea as worthwhile – we can start our own initiative (or join one we believe in and want to give our time to).