volunteerism in america

May 4, 2023

Episode #056: The Role of Voluntarism & Volunteerism in America with Elisabeth Clemens

In today’s episode, Tobi interviews Dr. Elisabeth Clemens from University of Chicago who is an expert in how volunteerism sits and civic society sits in building our nation here in America. 

Dr. Elisabeth is the William Rainey Harper Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. Her recent awards-winning book, Civic Gifts: Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation-State (Chicago 2020), traces the tense but powerful entanglements of benevolence and liberalism in American political development. 

Volunteerism in America – Role of Foundations

Foundations have played an important role in the history of volunteerism in America, particularly in the second half of the 19th century and beyond. Philanthropists like Carnegie and Rosenwald established foundations that collaborated with volunteer groups to provide public goods such as libraries and schools. These foundations required popular fundraising as evidence of and a process of making popular commitment to the public good they were helping to provide.

Volunteerism in America – Favorite Moments In the History

One of the favorite moments in the history of philanthropy/civic engagement/volunteerism in America that Dr. Elizabeth Clemens mentioned is the winter of 1931 during the Great Depression. Elites in New York had been supporting various kinds of employment relief efforts, but they were getting tapped out and didn’t know what to do. They brought in John Price Jones, who is the founder of what we know of as institutional fundraising in the US, to help. This effort was a large-scale fundraising campaign that helped to provide relief during a time of crisis.

Volunteerism in America – Lessons from the Past

We live in a world that is made in the past, but there’s always a possibility for action and innovation, particularly in unsettled times. One key lesson that can be taken away from the history of volunteerism in America for leaders of volunteers, volunteer involving organizations, and philanthropy in general is the importance of recognizing the power of organized volunteering and volunteerism as a resource for meeting a crisis. However, it is also important to recognize that the ways in which these practices are used going forward will not be the same as in the past and will require creativity and innovation.

Volunteerism in America – Community Vs. Cult

Tobi and Elisabeth discussed the difference between a community and a cult. Tobi pointed out that communities ideally involve shared power and decision-making, while cults often have a centralized, charismatic leader who benefits from the work of the community. There are problems with both communities and cults, but there is there is an emphasis on the the importance of power sharing and mutual benefit in true community work.

Overall, the conversation highlights the importance of understanding the context and power dynamics of voluntary associations, as well as the need for shared power and mutual benefit in true community work.

Volunteerism in America – Show Highlights

00:46.90 Tobi introduces Dr. Elisabeth Clemens and her work

03:09.00 Elisabeth explains what sparked her interest in scholarly research on the history of volunteerism in America

05:11.70 Tobi asks Elisabeth why she thinks volunteerism matters today

08:00.80 How volunteerism is different than philanthropy. Is there a parsing between those definitions as well?

09:56.30 Elisabeth explains the term ‘civic gifts’

16:14.40 Is volunteerism in America unique as a social enterprise?

19:51.20 Idea about collective look is missing from our history books

32:12.30 How did civic engagement back in the early days of the Republic look different than it did even maybe colonial times prior to establishment of America?

39:03.00 Tobi asks Elisabeth what are some of her favorite moments in the history of philanthropy, civic engagement, volunteerism

52:00.10 What is Elisabeth’s one key takeaway from our history

57:08.50 Elisabeth tells what she is most excited about in the year ahead

57:40.40 Where to learn more about Elisabeth

Volunteerism in America – Quotes from the Episode

I think we all have these stories in our families of the legacy of volunteerism and it touches us in different ways.

Foundations are certainly an important element in the history of American volunteerism.”

So one thing to keep in mind is that if you are a ruler, organized associations of volunteers are dangerous.”

And the kind of work that often gets done in voluntary groups and volunteer efforts seems less heroic.”

How do we build this whole community by bringing in individual volunteer delegations who all get the satisfaction of doing something that has immediate observable returns?”

Long-term commitment often comes from a sense of having channels or ladders or paths within the organization that are rewarding to the volunteers. “

And one of the sort of elements of real concern about American democracy over last half century or whatever it’s been the increasing number of people who can’t see a way that their vote could possibly matter.”

There’s always something to be learned, I think from our legacy and our history and our forefathers and foremothers and other people that helped in some ways form what we’re doing today.”

We live in a world that is made in the past, but there’s always a possibility for action and innovation, particularly in unsettled times. And arguably we are in unsettled times.”

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