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U.S. Volunteerism

Volunteerism During And After The Civil War

The Civil War helped Americans to overcome whatever qualms they may have had about volunteerism. Though the war gave rise to a strong national government, it also strengthened the voluntary impulse. Armies on both sides—at least in the first years of the war—depended on volunteer soldiers. In the North, caring for the wounded and attending to the public health needs of the armed forces depended on national voluntary associations, the United States Sanitary Commission and the United States Christian Commission. These national bodies used local chapters to raise funds, produce medical supplies, and raise morale (Brockett, 1864; Frederickson, 1965).

After the war, voluntary associations flourished on an unprecedented scale (Skocpol, 2003). Fraternal and sororal organizations proliferated in countryside and city alike. Veterans' organizations with chapters in every city and village advocated for the interests of those who had served in the armed forces. The growth of cities and the increasing corruption of the political system encouraged the growth of associations advocating civil service, sanitary, and education reform. The growth of industry gave rise not only to national trade associations to advance the interests of merchants and manufacturers, but to labor organizations to defend the rights of working people. As demands for specialized expertise grew, professionals of every sort—physicians, lawyers, clergy, architects, engineers, and educators—organized membership associations to set professional standards and advance their collective legislative interests.

The rapid growth of voluntary associations among a people that, on the whole, had little experience with them led inevitably to considerable organizational disorder. Union army officer Henry M. Robert (1837–1923), assigned to posts in Washington State, California, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin, encountered what he described as "virtual parliamentary anarchy" in voluntary organizations (Doyle, 1980). This moved him to write his famous Rules of Order—which became the national standard for Americans swept up in the tidal wave of association building in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, two parallel traditions of volunteerism, one public, the other private, were firmly in place. On the public side, most municipalities depended on the voluntary energies of citizens, who served on boards and commissions and ran key municipal services (such as fire protection) on a voluntary basis. On the private side, many public services, such as social welfare and health care, had become largely dependent on voluntary donations of money and labor. But even when formally private, volunteerism sought not merely to serve members in their private capacities—it was almost always linked to government, seeking to sway public opinion on civic issues or to elicit government commitment. During the 1920s, Herbert Hoover sought to create an "associative state" based on partnerships between voluntary associations and government agencies (Hoover, 1922; Hawley, 1977).

Volunteerism served both democratic and undemocratic purposes. Organizations like the American Protective Association and the Ku Klux Klan—both voluntary associations—sought to disempower and terrorize racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. Elite art museums, symphony orchestras, and universities sought both to enlighten the public and to shape its values in ways favorable to the interests of monied elites (DiMaggio, 1986). Professional associations often used efforts to elevate professional standards as ways of excluding Catholics and Jews (Auerbach, 1976). At the same time, voluntary associations were vehicles for national and international efforts to oppose lynching, promote economic and social justice, and advance women's suffrage (see, for example, Dray, 2002).

Inevitably, as the twentieth century advanced, hitherto voluntary activity began to be affected by professionalization. As the revenue needs of educational, health, and social welfare institutions grew, they were increasingly likely to turn to professional fundraising firms instead of depending on the efforts of volunteers (Cutlip, 1990). As medical and social work practice increasingly required higher levels of expertise, professionals and managers began to replace volunteers as key decision makers in health and welfare agencies (Starr, 1982; Perrow, 1963). By the late 1920s, the establishment training programs for volunteer trustees and directors in schools, libraries, and social agencies suggest that even volunteering itself began to require trained expertise (Hall, 2000). Inevitably, professionals pushed volunteers to the margins in most large nonprofit organizations.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Verbena Family (Verbenaceae) - Tropical Hardwoods In The Verbena Family to WelfarismU.S. Volunteerism - Volunteerism In Colonial America, Volunteerism In The Early Republic, Volunteerism During And After The Civil War