History of Volunteerism in America


The history of volunteerism in America is rich and complex. As long as we have been a nation focused on helping and improving the lives of others, we have had volunteer opportunities in the United States.

The Start of Volunteering

A philanthropic spirit has been with Americans since the very first pioneers traveled west. Many historians believe the earliest instances of the history of volunteerism in America began when colonists had to form support systems in order to survive the many challenges that came with relocation. From farming the land to overcoming devastating illnesses, togetherness was vital for survival, and that lesson was not only learned, but remembered by future generations. Beyond this basic act of volunteerism, American philanthropy has been well documented. Below is a simple time line with some highlights of people helping people - something our nation has always been proficient at doing.

18th Century Volunteerism in America

In 1736, Benjamin Franklin founded the first volunteer firehouse. This tradition still continues today, as many small towns and cities have a volunteer fire department that makes a huge difference in local community life.

During the Revolutionary War, volunteers got together to raise funds for the war efforts, and organized boycotts of various products from Great Britain, showing both their philanthropic attitude and patriotism.

The 19th Century

The religious rejuvenations during the Great Awakening of the 1830s inspired young people to get involve with outreach work through various religious organizations. Local churches ran all sorts of relief programs, helping the homeless and those victimized by unforeseen circumstances.

The now prolific YMCA also started in the mid 1800s, started on a college campus in Michigan, while the American Red Cross is established in 1881. Yet another still-recognizable charity, the United Way, begins in Denver and coordinates local services for people in need.

The 20th Century

While most volunteers of the 18th and 19th centuries found their assignments through their church or another private sector, the 20th century is where mainstream volunteer organizations really began to flourish. The first example of this is the start of the Rotary Club, which was founded in 1910. The Lions Club and Kiwanis were not far behind, as these were both established before 1920. Soon, organizations were coming into existence with the sole purpose of helping other organizations find their way. America was full of volunteers functioning in every region of the nation, giving others the chance at a better life.

Today's soup kitchen concept was most likely created during the Great Depression, as the country experienced an overwhelming need for assistance with the simplest of things - namely food and shelter. Countless Americans and their families were helped by Depression bread lines.

Environmentalism also found its place during the 1930s, as President Roosevelt raised awareness by helping the Conservation Corps plant approximately 3 million trees in a single decade.

During World War II, many volunteer organizations went to work on supporting both servicemen and civilians in a variety of areas. And in the 1960s, volunteerism focused on a different kind of war - a liberal one against poverty, inequality and violence around the world.

The history of volunteerism in America continues to be written today as a new generation of world changers is raised up in a nation that cherishes philanthropic efforts. The 21st century causes include green living, animal welfare and equal rights regardless of race, gender and sexual orientation. It is a great era to be alive, as many are devoting time and energy toward improving the welfare of those around them.

To find out how you can get involved with a volunteer organization, visit a website such as Volunteer Match, which will lead you to customized opportunities to serve, based upon your specific demographic and interests.

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History of Volunteerism in America