Volunteerism in America: History and Trends

Rosterfy takes a look at the history of volunteerism in America, and how it has influenced volunteering today.

“No matter how big and powerful the government gets, and the many services it provides, it can never take the place of volunteers.” — Ronald Reagan

American society has a long history with volunteerism. From formal volunteering with a non profit organization, to helping out a neighbor, In every town and city across the country, volunteers are the backbone to happy, healthy and connected communities.

So let’s take a look at the history of volunteerism in America, and how it has influenced volunteering today. 


When did volunteering start in America?

The simple act of selflessly helping others is not a new concept, people have been doing that since the beginning of time. The verb ‘to volunteer’ was first recorded in 1755 in reference to someone who signs up for military service.

But its usage soon expanded in the 1700s to reflect community service. This community service was, and continues to be, the most common way American volunteerism takes place.


Volunteering history in the 1700s

Historical records suggest that volunteering started in America in 1736 when Benjamin Franklin founded the first volunteer firehouse after a ship fire burned down the wharf, warehouses and neighboring houses. This first brigade was formed by 26 volunteers, and as more and more continued to sign up, additional brigades were formed. This tradition has continued throughout the centuries, with around 70% of American firefighters today being volunteers.

The next major volunteerism in America effort was during The Revolutionary War (1773-1783). As soldiers signed up to fight, civilians volunteered to raise money and express their patriotism by boycotting British goods and supporting independence.

These American volunteerism efforts gave regular citizens a way to get involved without having to join the battlefield. 


Volunteering history in the 1800s

The Great Awakening- a religious revival that swept the country- can be attributed to the raft of charitable organizations founded on a religious basis that emerged in the 1800s. These groups sought volunteers to join the fight to abolish slavery, help the disadvantaged and support servicemen.

One of these groups included the YMCA, founded in 1851, which aimed to put Christian principles into practice through youth activities including athletics, skills and classes, promoting Christianity and humanitarian work.

Towards the end of the century, the American Red Cross was founded by Clara Barton after she was inspired as a volunteer in Switzerland with the European arm, providing neutral aid to those injured in combat. The Red Cross quickly got to work mobilizing volunteer relief efforts in the aftermath of the Johnstown Flood in 1889. Clara’s motto, “I see a need, and I have to fill it” came to define American volunteerism movements moving forward.

Americans also volunteered politically throughout this period of rapid social change. The Temperance, Abolitionist and Women’s Suffrage Movements were some of the first movements that encouraged citizens, including women, to use their voice and take part in improving society.

When the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the country in the 1830s, he observed, “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.” 

This widespread collective volunteerism in America continued into the 20th century, as volunteers helped improve the lives of communities across America. 


Volunteering history in the 1900s

Several of the largest volunteer and charitable organizations still in existence today were founded in the early decades of the 20th century to connect the army of volunteers with social projects that improved the lives of fellow citizens. These include Rotary International, Lions Clubs International, Kiwanis International and Association of Junior Leagues International. The Salvation Army also undertook its first disaster relief efforts in the US after the Galveston Hurricane in 1900 and the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.

The WWI, WWII and inter-war periods were also major volunteering periods. Many on the home front rallied to help collect supplies, care for the sick and injured and support returned soldiers.

Altruism continued to grow in the world, and as international travel became easier from the 1960s, Americans started looking at volunteering abroad to help the poor. It was around this time, the Peace Corps was established in an attempt to formalize international volunteering opportunities.

This formalization continued as non profit organizations grew and spread internationally, utilizing modern technology such as the internet to advertise and recruit American volunteers, improve their services and maximize impact. 


Volunteerism in America today

American volunteerism as a means to improve society has continued through to the present day. American volunteer statistics from the US Bureau of Labor in 2015 showed that:

  • 62.6 million Americans volunteered
  • 24.9% of Americans over 16 volunteered
  • Volunteers give 52 hours per year on average
  • 33% volunteered with religious organizations, followed by 25% in educational or youth service organizations

What role does volunteerism play in the US?

Volunteerism in America is a major aspect of American culture, with one study finding that Americans are 15% more likely to volunteer than the Dutch, Swiss and Germans. 

American volunteerism peaked in the aftermath of 9/11, as Americans sought to express their collective grief through volunteer efforts to support the victims of the tragedy. The American Red Cross processed over 15,000 new volunteers in just two weeks and over 250 non-profit organizations were founded after 9/11, collectively raising almost $700 million within their first two years of operation. One of these, One Day's Pay, successfully petitioned to recognise September 11 as National Day of Service, in honor of the outpouring of volunteer effort - as a silver lining out of the tragedy.

A similar phenomenon occurred at the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. While Americans were under shelter at home orders, many older volunteers had to stop their regular volunteering due to health risks. But many others stood up, responding to calls for help from their local communities, both safely in person or online. "More and more young people are signing up and sticking to volunteering," said Isabelle Persoz, President of Tous Bénévoles. The International Committee of the Red Cross also noted a sharp rise in numbers, with hundreds of thousands of new volunteers registering around the world.

Are Americans volunteering less?

Around 2005, approximately 28.8% of Americans volunteered their time, however, that volunteer rate dropped to only 25.3 percent by 2018. This trend is generally attributed to economic decline, as people don’t have the time or energy to give to volunteering when they are in financial stress.

Secondary social factories include the decline of civic engagement opportunities in rural areas, as churches and schools close down or lose members. The decline in home ownership also plays a factor, as people put down less roots and live more transient lives.

But it’s important to note that not all areas of volunteering are in decline. Technology has seen virtual volunteering opportunities grow, increasing the demand for volunteers by helping to attract a younger, tech-savvy group of volunteers to accomplish a wider range of tasks.

Technology’s influence on volunteerism

We know that technology is revolutionizing the way we do almost everything and volunteering is no different. With purpose-built volunteer management software, such as Rosterfy, volunteerism in America has never been easier. Volunteer management software is specifically designed to help organizations of all sizes recruit, screen, train, engage and retain volunteers, from one central place. It also helps reduce friction, admin, confusion and no-shows that can be major headaches for volunteer managers. 

Similarly, automating the registration process for volunteers allows them to stay engaged throughout each step, without losing momentum while waiting for a reply. Volunteers can easily apply for shifts, complete training, chat to other volunteers and receive rewards online.

At the same time, micro-volunteering and virtual volunteering are both growing trends in America, as volunteers can engage in a less structured way in a time that suits them. Many organizations rely on virtual volunteers to help out with important tasks such as phone counseling, translating, graphic design, admin, legal work and teaching online. While micro volunteering tasks require people to find time to complete small tasks as part of larger projects, i.e. BeMyEyes and SkillsforChange, utilizing technology to complete them quickly and easily.

Hiring virtual volunteers to do these roles enables organizations to expand their talent pool, get more done, reduce the need for additional office space, as well as save money on services such as phones and internet.

With a variety of websites dedicated to listing volunteer opportunities, this is another massive area that technology has vastly influenced.

How to get involved

So you want to join the army of volunteers in America? Great! It’s never been easier to find and register for volunteer roles and volunteer programs that suit your skills and interests. Check out these sites to get started:

Alternatively, check out these articles for more great ideas:


About Rosterfy

Rosterfy exists to connect volunteers to events and causes they're passionate about through our end-to-end volunteer management solution

If you’d like to learn more about how Rosterfy can help you recruit and manage volunteers with ease, why not book a demo of our product today?

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