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

Hey, welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas on how to build, grow, and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson, and if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity, cause, membership or movement, I made this podcast just for you. Welcome everybody to another episode of The Volunteer Nation. I am super excited today to welcome Elisabeth Clemens from University of Chicago. 

I really love to look at volunteerism, both from micro lens, really getting up close and seeing what’s working, what’s not working, how we can make changes. But I also like to zoom out and take a look at the macro. And Dr. Clemens is really an expert in how volunteerism sits and civic society sits in building our nation here in America. 

Now, if you are from another country listening in, don’t worry, I think this will give you pause to think just a little bit about how volunteerism might sit in the history of your country of origin or where you’re living now. I like to talk about where did we come from in the first place and why are we here where we are? 

And there is so much hidden about volunteerism and the impacts that we have. Certainly, we have the impacts on direct beneficiaries of volunteerism. We have plenty of research on the impact of volunteers themselves and on communities. But there’s also this bigger picture of how volunteerism has had an impact on the shaping of our nations. So Liz or Dr. Clemens has done some research and really,really done some pretty thorough research in this story of volunteerism in America. And there’s also been other recent research, the UN volunteers in their state of volunteering report back in 2022, only a year ago, it feels like a long time ago, really talked about how volunteers are really at the intersection between communities and government and shaping of policy, et cetera, 

And are well-situated to do that work around the world, not just in the US. So I think this is a very timely conversation. I think it’s going to be an interesting chat. So let me introduce Dr. Elisabeth Clemens. She’s the William Rainey Harper Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. And the book that really got me interested in talking with Liz is Civic Gifts,  

Voluntarism in the Making of the American Nation State. And she has written several books, but what interested me the most is she is also a former master of the social sciences. So that made it clear to me. Okay, I understand why volunteers might be part of the picture, but I’m actually going to ask her to tell us a little bit about herself and Liz, what sparked your interest in scholarly research on the history of volunteerism in America?  

Elisabeth: Well first, Tobi, thank you so much for the invitation to have this conversation. It’s really made me think and rethink some of the arguments in the book. I actually didn’t begin by being interested in volunteerism specifically. That was something my mom did for the YWCA and I collated and folded things to go into envelopes a couple times every year. 

Instead, I really started out with questions about government and a sense that the standard story about congress and the courts, and the presidency, and the elections, that something was really missing, that the focus on the formal institutions didn’t help us to understand political change. So that led me first to large voluntary associations as political actors and how they figured out how to get leverage over politics. 

And then I really noticed how much of the work of governing, of producing public goods and public services was going on, often in relationship to government, but in ways that weren’t recognized as government.  

Tobi: Fantastic. So, I think it’s interesting. I think we all have these stories in our families of the legacy of volunteerism and it touches us in different ways. 

I had two matriarchal grandmothers on both sides who were very, very involved. One who was of means she was a nurse and volunteered late into life. The other was working class and also did her own philanthropy with the limited means she had. So I love how we touch back on our mothers and grandmothers and the things that we do with family. 

I’m going to kick it off with a big picture question. Why do you think volunteerism matters today?  

Elisabeth: So I’m going to start with a bit of definitional work. Volunteerism isn’t the word I use. So volunteerism often focus us our attention on individuals, their contributions, their motives for action, focusing on qualities of altruism, questions of is there self-interest there? 

The word in the title of the book is Voluntarism, which encompasses that, but has a meaning of sort of private provision of public goods. And that’s certainly what volunteers are doing. But it’s also that private provision can happen in ways that we wouldn’t necessarily associate with volunteering. So an example in 1931, John D. Rockefeller, wealthiest man in the nation is approached to give a donation for unemployment. 

And he thinks he’s being asked for a little bit too much. So he responds by saying, my family is doing all of this to meet the unemployment crisis. We’re building Rockefeller Center. We would not think of that as volunteering in any way, but he didn’t have to build Rockefeller Center there. He presented it as a choice to help out in a national crisis. 

He had given land for a park, which is where the cloisters now are, and was paying for the laborers to do the landscaping. And then he’d given a million dollars to the Emergency Unemployment Committee and he thought of all of those as private contributions to meet a public crisis. So volunteering to the extent it focuses on individual action is a really important part of that. 

It’s an important piece that shapes the normative value, but it also obscures in some ways the role of often very powerful actors and organizations in the private provision of public goods. So I want to include that as well.  

Tobi: Interesting. So would you say volunteerism not double e, but ar, so volunteerism versus voluntarism is different. Would you say voluntarism is different than philanthropy? Is there a parsing between those definitions as well?  

Elisabeth: Well, the words all overlap, right? Philanthropy, the sort of older term would be benevolence, broadly. Foundations are certainly an important element in the history of American volunteerism, really second half of the 19th century forward, they often act in collaboration with volunteer groups. So if you think of, we’ve just gone black, okay. If you think of things like the Carnegie Libraries or the Rosenwald Schools, you had a philanthropist with a foundation making a gift that had to be matched by funds raised by the community and a commitment by local government to pay costs going forward. So philanthropy is a piece of that, but it’s a collaboration of not just public and private, but different kinds of private organizations to make that happen. 

And philanthropists like Carnegie, like Rosenwald required that popular fundraising because that was both evidence of, and a process of making popular commitment to this public good that they were helping to provide a library or a school for African American children in the South.  

Tobi: Okay, interesting. Interesting. So when in your book you refer to the contributions for the common good, this volunteerism as civic gifts, can you share a little bit more what you mean by that term? Civic gifts? We talked a little bit about what volunteerism is, but what about those civic gifts

Elisabeth: So what I mean by that is that giving, and particularly these large-scale fundraising efforts, often around disaster, but not exclusively around disaster. Early versions might have supported distributing Bibles or establishing Sunday schools helping the poor. 

But those were not just expressions of altruism, they were also acts of participation and membership in a political community that part of being sort of a citizen, a member of a town, a state, a nation, a religion, was to sort of give in a way that sort of built a nation as a whole. And an early example of this was the committee on donations that was formed after the British block hated the Boston Harbor, and you had a system of  gathering flower, molasses, whatever else was needed from around the country.  

Having gifts go from one city to the people of Boston, so from Charleston, from New York, from whatever small town. Those collective gifts were often reported in local newspapers. So it was kind of performance of even before there is United States. 

There’s a sort of collective participation and performance that we are all in this together and we, the people of Charleston are sort of freely giving to support our future co-citizens in Boston who are currently bearing the brunt of the British Navy. So that makes it not, the act of giving is simultaneously creating and demonstrating one’s membership in a political community.  

Tobi: Yeah, fascinating. Fascinating. It’s a collective, it’s interesting that it’s both philanthropic has a philanthropic bent to it, but it also has that political bent to it. And that’s sort of is, would you say that’s the crux of the book and your scholarship on this? 

Elisabeth: Yes, absolutely. What I hope the book does is to really suggest how central volunteerism broadly was to the development of both the sort of imagined community that is a nation, but also to the capacity of government to meet crises. So these models are particularly important in meeting war, in meeting disaster, the distinctive American contribution to the International Red Cross movement that International Red Cross forms around the sort of casualties of war and civilians caught in war. What the American branch does is to add natural disaster and those become moments where funds are raised in one place to help another place that is hit by misfortune, but it’s also a kind of collective mutual insurance operation, that you give now and support other people visited by disaster.  

And there’s a hope that in return you will be supported. So after the Great Chicago Fire, Chicago is just diligent in raising money sort of to reciprocate for all the support it got in rebuilding after the fire. 

Tobi: Wow. I think in today’s world, it’s interesting to think about this because I may be getting ahead of myself in my questions, but we don’t really see this highlighted in the world lightly today. The narrative, the overall narrative is one of division. And I mean, although you can see it in, for example, Ukraine, people are individually and collectively through charities supporting folks who’ve  been devastated in the Ukraine. I think about World Central Kitchen, and then individuals of course in the more volunteerism side of things getting involved. But the narrative is really more about individualism rather than the collective good, which I think is interesting. 

Elisabeth: Well, and I think the invasion of Ukraine is a really good place to sort of see the power of this. If you think strategically, one of the consequences of the invasion might have been anticipated to be a wave of migration that would be as politically divisive and destabilizing as the wave of migration from Syria a few years before. And instead, you got this stunningly fast mobilization that absorb the shock of mass migration in a really quite extraordinary way. 

So there you see the political functions of volunteerism in a geopolitical way, but keeping in mind the contrast with the migration wave a few years earlier, it doesn’t always happen. It doesn’t happen automatically.  

Tobi: Yeah. Yeah. It’s not something we can always expect. Is volunteerism in America, is it unique as a social enterprise in the US? I mean, back in the day to Tocqueville was saying how unique we are as helping one another back in colonial era, even before the US was formed. Is it unique to us or is it something you’re seeing playing out in other democracies, in emerging democracies, et cetera, globally?  

Elisabeth: Historically it’s distinctive in current terms, I think it’s less distinctive. So one thing to keep in mind is that if you are a ruler, organized associations of volunteers are dangerous. There’s  an episode recounted about one of the Roman emperors who’s approached by a delegation from what’s now modern Turkey. We have this problem, cities keep burning down, we’d like to establish volunteer fire brigades. Is that okay, Emperor? Emperor thinks about it for a while and says, no, they’ll start as volunteer fire brigades, but they’ll become something else.  

So in the long historical lens, the ability of groups to organize independent of the government, and particularly to have the sort of legal standing to own property, own a cemetery, have a bank account. That’s been pretty strictly controlled and was very strictly controlled in France after the revolution. So the US was unusual in the extent to which it allowed for this. 

And it’s largely because those associations were often religious. And once you have that no establishment of religion, you sort of have to let religious associations do things like buy land, own cemeteries, take corporate form. So it’s unusual, it’s not unproblematic, it’s very controversial. Associations are seen as possibly conspiratorial, corrupt sources of tyranny. But by the time Tocqueville gets to the US in the 1830s, 

they’re pretty established and are distinctive. But I think while not unique over the next century, certainly the post World War II model of democracy really has a large role for voluntary associations. I mean, in between there of course is all the work of church-associated guilds, fraternal orders. So not unique, but I think distinctive for much of the 19th and early 20th century. 

Tobi: Well, another question around sort of general discourse of American history, volunteerism in my mind is rarely mentioned. I mean, i, the associations are mentioned, but we tend to, in my mind, and maybe I’m off on this, tell me if I am, I feel like we focus more on individual community heroes in our history rather than associations of people. There’s power with a group that there’s the power of the people, but it’s usually individuals, the founding fathers for example, that are highlighted. Do you think that more collective look at the history of America is missing from our history books? Do you see that what I’m seeing? 

Elisabeth: Yeah, no, I think you’re right that in narrative terms, either heroic individuals or honorable, but tragic resistance they make for better stories. And the kind of work that often gets done in voluntary groups and volunteer efforts seems less heroic. And I think certainly in the US a piece of it is also that volunteer groups have often retreated from identifying themselves with political conflict, political change.  

So there’s been a way in which the self-presentation of voluntary associations is cut off from the great narratives of conflict and change. There’s at least some literature that suggests that respondents in voluntary associations typically overestimate the degree to which they are prohibited from being engaged with politics. And I think certainly the sense of being nonpartisan is often very, very valuable. 

And we don’t always have other narratives of big and exciting change except in disasters.  

Tobi: Right. I mean, the speed of change, I know when I’m working with specifically advocacy groups that involve volunteers and activism and advocacy, it’s difficult sometimes to motivate volunteers. It’s a way different experience than if I’m doing tutoring with kids in a disadvantaged neighborhood.  

Like I can see the results of our work together. But when you’re doing advocacy, sometimes it’s years in the making. I think about the Affordable Care Act and the advocacy around that, or the advocacy to get prescription drugs as part of Medicare, those kinds of things took decades of work of people working together to make it happen.Generations one might say. So, it’s, it’s easier I think to see those like bright spots really, really easily  

Elisabeth: And that’s something that I think has changed over the last century to take the long view. So reading accounts and speeches by labor, I’m thinking in particular of a labor organizer who’s by this point, quite senior at the end of a long career. And he gives that speech that echoes, I may not get there with you, but I’ve been part of the fight. It’s been a long fight and I am passing the torch. And even if I don’t see the final victory, it’s been worth being on the journey. And I do think that many of the contemporary ways of volunteering focus on sort of the immediacy. 

If you think of programs that mobilize a delegation from a community group or congregation to go and build houses. You go, you give of time and energy and commitment and at the end, there’s a house and you pull back. But that experience of accomplishment is dependent on this other organization that’s thinking somewhat longer term. Right? 

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? And I think that’s one of the challenges to leaders of volunteer efforts, is how do you mesh those different timeframes of the people who are with the project over years and the volunteers who are coming in for really important but discreet and time-limited contributions. 

Tobi: Yeah, I could not agree more. I mean, even what I’m hearing from practitioners is this tension between volunteers who really want to do episodic involvement. They just want to dip their baby toe in and for a day of service or a short project and then they’re out. It’s not, I am identified with this organization. 

I’m going to spend my time over the next several years.  I remember when I was leading volunteers, I had volunteers who’d been with my organization for 20 years. They were there at the very beginning. They helped establish the organization itself, and now I’m hearing this real tension in people’s lives of how much they’re able to give. 

And I’m not sure they see themselves as individuals on part of a continuum of history for the organization or the impact area or the cause that the organization is contributing to over globally or more on a bigger level.  

Elisabeth: I think that’s really true and important to think about what are the career paths, if you will, within volunteeringif sort of you move from level to level, get to travel, meet new people, and be part of increasingly central conversations about the direction of the organization. And I think that long-term commitment often comes from a sense of having channels or ladders or paths within the organization that are rewarding to the volunteers.  

Tobi: I mean, I almost think of it as stakeholder deepening what’s at stake when you think about, you were talking earlier about the earlier history of volunteerism and mutual associations. People had real stakes. It’s like, who’s going to govern me? Who am I going to pay taxes to? Who’s going to have violence against my family or my community? What am I going to have the right to do? 

What am I going to have the liberty to do with my life? So there was a fair amount of at stake. So people were coming together with some pretty high stakes situations nowadays in some respects, in some corners of volunteerism. It’s really, I just have a stake because I care and I want to be a good person and I want to live my values into my values. 

And I may have a past experience or current lived experience with this cause I’m supporting, but it may not impact my neighborhood or my community so directly. Yeah.  

Elisabeth: And on that point, this is actually where I think the revival of mutual aid is one of the really, really interesting and potentially important developments that was certainly heightened by the, particularly the early phase of the pandemic. 

That became an important language of caring for others, but caring for our community and building a kind of capacity that could move from challenge to challenge to challenge. So, and that’s certainly not just a US phenomenon. You saw in distribution of food collecting of personal protective equipment and other factors. You saw this globally, I know at least anecdotally and impressionistic from various conversations. 

And there was a sense of there’s a collective capacity to take care of ourselves as a larger group, a larger community that maybe hadn’t been appreciated.  

Tobi: Yeah. Yeah. I also see it with two areas lately seem to be voting rights. People have major stake in that if they’re marginalized and their communities are feeling the push against their liberties and enfranchisement. 

I also think with reproductive rights, there’s more people I think with reproductive rights that are involved in the conversation. More people at that feel they have a stake. It seems like there’s a general sort of conversation about how this is much more than just for people who are considering whether or not to have an abortion, that there’s a larger community health impact. 

There’s a larger sort of human rights impact that wasn’t part of this. It didn’t feel like it was part of  the narrative about it before. So it’s interesting, there’s a few areas where I think volunteerism might be reemerging in this way of engaging citizens in making change.  

Elisabeth: Absolutely. 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. 

And one of the things that particular issues combined with ways of organizing participation can have an important impact is by helping people to see that while their individual vote may not be able to have an immediate impact in turning back some existentially threatening issue, they can at least have the experience of working collectively and changing something, even if it’s something specific and local. That experience in itself is empowering because you sort of do that once you see that it works and that builds a commitment to continue working collectively, whether that’s through formal politics or through sort of other kinds of community-based channels.  

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. Well, hey, let’s take a quick break. We will be right back after the break with more on the history of volunteerism in America with Elisabeth Clemens. So don’t go anywhere. 

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Tobi: Okay. We’re back with our exploration of volunteerism in America and its impact on society with Dr. Elisabeth Clemens of University of Chicago. And I want to dip back into a little bit into the history because I kicked off this podcast episode about hey, we need to get grounded and understand as practitioners where we sit in. 

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. So 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? How did it look different than it does today? 

We talked a little bit about that earlier, but those voluntary associations, were they really usually, or most often a product of a faith-based community? Or were there other things going on?  

Elisabeth: So early on, there certainly were voluntary groups, often associated with religious organizations by the 18th century, start having fraternal organizations such as the Masons, various kinds of ethnically linked organizations tied to different streams of immigration. 

But the thing to really remember is up through really the middle of the 19th century before the Civil War, there’s a lot of suspicion. It’s not quite clear that these things are legitimate. They might be dangerous to democracy. So George Washington accepts the presidency of the Society of the Cincinnati, which was an honorary for Revolutionary War officers and their sons. And he accepts it basically only to kill it.  

He doesn’t really kill it, but he demobilizes it because having an association that had potential political influence but was outside the bounds of the Constitution, that was dangerous. So through the first half of the 19th century, you get groups mobilizing, but also a great deal of suspicion. And the key moment is really the Civil War when these sort of local and specific kinds of groups get harnessed into a national effort. 

National there being the union, the north and that complex to raise funds and do volunteer work to support the army. And this is understood as fundamentally democratic, that soldiers in those European armies, particularly the Russian Army, but also the British Navy, they’re demeaned by their service, by being at the bottom of a hierarchy ordered around by officers who often aristocrats. 

And we are going to fight a war in a way that the language was makes the army, the army of the people not of kings. We are going to have the soldiers supported directly by voluntary efforts. And this is seen as something really unprecedented. John Stewart Mill writes a letter in saying, wow, you’ve done something really novel here. Giuseppe Masini, who’s sort of the father of Italian republicanism, basically credits these commissions, the sanitary commission and the Christian Commission with having figured out a way to keep a republic from sliding into the terror and dictatorship.  

It’s like the solution to that is large-scale volunteerism, making something like an army dependent on the people, rather than empowering a government that could become totalitarianism. So there is a real sense of invention around the way in which the Civil War gets organized logistically and financially. 

And then once that script is there, it gets used again and again and again. Mass employment, bring out the script, another war, then a natural disaster, which leads to this distinctively American model of the Red Cross where hurricanes, earthquakes, et cetera, become moments where you get the model revived. Importantly, what happens in the first decade of the 20th century is that the Red Cross is rechartered and the charter includes the president of the United States and six cabinet secretaries as members of the board. 

So there’s a moment there where the Red Cross, which at this point had chapters in two out of 3000 counties in the US.And if you think about that as a political structure, that’s really potentially powerful and it gets linked directly to the presidency. And then the convention is established that the president gives that up at the end of their term and the next president becomes Exofficio the president. 

So you have this sort of tighter linking of the Red Cross and each of those chapters is a little group of local elites. So this really is a powerful apparatus and no one used it better than Herbert Hoover.  

Tobi: So it’s almost a little grassroots to grass tops, but more formalizing it with a more formal link to government. And interesting neatly now with disaster relief, it flows the other way too through like state service commissions and they have a big role to play in disaster relief and mobilizing volunteers and through AmeriCorps, et cetera. So it’s an interesting, more formalization of the partnership in some ways.  

Elisabeth: The arrangement I just described gets rearranged after World War II, in part because it was seen as too empowering of the president to have this direct tie to local organizations in 2 out of 3000 counties. I mean, it’s really important to keep the magnitude of that so we all know about federalism, right? Federal, state, city, but this was a sort of president city town kind of organization that had the potential to be very, very powerful.  

Tobi: Yeah. Interesting. Fascinating. You’ve touched on a few times in history, I’m wondering what are some of your favorite moments in the history of philanthropy, civic engagement, volunteerism. What were some of yours where you really felt like,  this is probably the best for all parties, this is something that’s mutually beneficial at all levels and made an impact in a way that was really significant. Can you think of a few that these are my favorites.  

Elisabeth: Well, I’ll give you one of my favorites and it’s impact is a little sort of indirect but in sort of winter of 19, I guess this is 31, depression, just horrible, horrible, horrible, no end in sight. And elites in New York have been supporting various kinds of employment relief efforts and they’re just getting tapped out. They don’t know what to do. So they bring in this guy named John Price Jones, who is the founder of what we know of as institutional fundraising in the US. 

He comes out of the World War I effort, his hobby is the Harvard Endowment, and that’s done rather well. So they bring him in to say, okay, we can’t have unemployment relief being supported by the figure they give is 3% of the residents of New York City. It’s got to be a broader based movement. So what can you do for us? And because this guy has a consulting firm, it’s actually beautifully documented and he builds out this entire system that hires unemployed, particularly men in white-collar jobs who are now unemployed to go out and assess neighborhoods and figure out who could be the leaders in that local campaign and how much should everyone be asked to give. So they do this big assessment of how they much, they should be able to give. 

They develop a series of radio speeches that they claim are the first time that you have a speech and then call this number, people are ready to give your gifts. So that’s allegedly where that starts. They have campaign songs and the series of radio speeches includes JP Morgan, allegedly giving his first ever address on the radio, followed a few weeks later by a repeat socialist candidate for the presidency. 

So this is civic giving, right? Patriotic philanthropy. It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are, what your politics are, we are in this together. So it’s a major effort, it’s innovative and ultimately it’s insufficient. It’s the moment when the very wealthy in New York, people are very active, very committed to unemployment relief, realize that despite the size of our fortunes, we cannot fix this.  

And so it’s a moment where governments got to come in, there’s got to be public relief. So it’s in some ways just such an intriguing moment for the innovation in terms of mobilizing all of New York City into this effort to do unemployment relief. And its importance is actually that it didn’t work and showed where a different configuration of government and voluntary effort needed to be worked out to get through the rest of the depression. 

Tobi: Wow. Interesting. Interesting. Any others you want to share that are faves? 

Elisabeth: Oh, there’s so many that are total faves. So going a couple of years later, this is sort of Red Cross. The Red Cross, as I said, is really strongly identified with Hoover. So when the Roosevelt administration comes in, there’s a certain amount of animus there. 

And Roosevelt works hard to build that relationship, which is built by World War II. But one of the things that Red Cross does during this period is they have production rooms, right? Where they make bandages, they knit sweaters, they’re important local sites of production as well as sociability, right? And building local solidarity and support representatives of the textile and knitting industry come to Roosevelt and just say, you got to stop sending yarn to these production rooms. 

We’re suffering shortages of yarn and besides they make really lousy sweaters. The people knitting and the sweaters don’t fit and the socks are lumpy. And Roosevelt just says, no, no, no. The sort of morale, the commitment that comes out of this local production is so important that the yarn keeps going. 

Tobi: It reminds me of the tension on a more micro level inside organizations when often they’ll bring on volunteers and paid staff will feel a little bit defensive about, well, wait a minute, are they going to take my jobs? I’m often recommending to folks, you need to find people doing things approximately right because they’re volunteers from the community. 

They’re not in embedded in your organization on a daily basis. So they may not have the knowledge you have, but they have other skills and talents. And there is something I think very powerful about bringing the community in because there are perspectives and there is that, I think solidarity is underused as a term and underestimated as a powerful tool. 

Elisabeth: And I should add, one of the reasons this model fades in importance is that the things people could do in World War I, knitting socks, et cetera, et cetera, are not very helpful by the time you get to World War II because volunteer groups cannot build armaments. And it’s widely seen as a kind of crisis that during World War II, political and voluntary leaders realized that there was all this demand and interest in doing something for the war effort, but a real shortage of the places where they could organize meaningful contributions that weren’t seen as useless make work by volunteers. And that’s a crisis of World War II. We don’t know how to make volunteer sort of amateur contributions helpful to the effort. 

Tobi: I think people still struggle with that today in some places. So volunteerism and voluntary associations, I feel like they’ve had a love-hate relationship with the government. On the one hand, leveraging and aligning your work together can amplify impact. On the other hand, there’s the sharing of power and, who is in power. And in some cases, the voluntary association is advocating for something different than the government wants to deliver or leaders in the government want to deliver.  

So how would you throughout history and in your book, you talk about the shaping of public policy beyond voting, what were the most impactful or how would you characterize this tension and which organizations maybe were the most effective at having equal power to the government or at least maybe not equal, but representative maybe is a better term. 

Elisabeth: Yeah, so one of the things that’s happened in contemporary government is that the input side is now very far from the output side, right? So voluntary associations may have the most work to do in implementing policy in their local community, whether that’s running food banks and homeless shelters and programs for youth on the street, et cetera, et cetera. But very little of that activity feeds back into the campaigns for representatives in Congress who have a role in formulating policy that is then implemented by some agency. So our current system in many ways spreads out the making of policy and disconnects it from the work of volunteers who are often absolutely critical in implementing policy and coming up with creative solutions that depend in part upon government authorization and contribution. 

When more got done at local and state levels, there was in some ways a tighter connection between those two. So I think an illustrative example, one of the important organizations of the early 20th century was the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. So you just imagine them in every city. One of their concerns was child labor. And within those clubs there would often be a committee on child labor, child welfare generally.  

And they certainly spoke to representatives, they voted if they had the vote, used voice if they didn’t have the vote. But once you got child labor minimum age or sort of required educational level or mandatory education, everyone had to have a birth certificate and that wasn’t the case. So as part of implementing child labor and mandatory education laws, the volunteers went out house to house doing the work of getting everyone a more or less correct. And I emphasize more or less, because it was definitely imprecise birth certificate because the whole legislative enterprise depended on having this information about individuals. So there was a role for advocacy and then there was also a role for getting out on a Saturday and going door to door, trying to figure out which children had one of these pieces of paper and which didn’t.  

Tobi: So it was full circle, came full circle. Interesting. Well, this has been such a fabulous conversation and I hope our listeners are just kind of thinking about the role. It’s a really, in some ways a macro conversation if you’re working in volunteer involvement on a daily basis. 

But just to think of the roles of volunteers, I mean, I think there’s definitely volunteer-driven advocacy organizations where they’re going to do their visits to the hill, they’re going to do their legislative days, they’re going to do their community education and they’re going to do their house parties to raise money and also continue to try to shape policy. But there’s also, I think it’s interesting the more people are involved in a volunteer organization at the ground level, whether it’s food and security or helping kids with literacy or adults with literacy, they also educate themselves about the issue at hand. And I think become more informed voters as well. So I think there’s a lot of benefits all around. 

Some people believe that the past will determine our future. And you’re a historian, so others feel we should be not be bound by the past. Given the history of volunteerism in America, what do you think is one key lesson we should take away from our own history for leaders of volunteers for volunteer-involving organizations and for philanthropy in general?  

Elisabeth: So I think 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. And so I think the lesson is that the practices, the models of organized volunteering, volunteerism, however you want to describe that, are powerful, powerful resources for meeting a crisis. 

And that should be recognized but also recognized in combination with creativity, right? The ways that are used going forward will not be the ways that these practices played out in the past.  

Tobi:  So true. So true. And I think there’s sort of human resources model of volunteerism where you’re bringing on unpaid labor into your organization to help meet your mission. 

But I really have enjoyed this conversation about the voluntary association and there are definitely, I think some challenges to that. Is it a community or is it a cult? Who does it benefit, right? But I think there’s a lot there in our communities of bringing people together and not necessarily always having, we don’t have to agree on everything to be associated and work towards at least one common goal. 

All we have to agree is that that goal is important and that we’re willing to stay in relationship to achieve it.  

Elisabeth: Agreed. And I realize I should sort of add a note of caution that we shouldn’t assume that because those people are volunteering or that organization is voluntary, that the substance of the activity is non-problematic. Right? So these are really powerful ways of mobilizing. 

They have been through history, but how they are used is really up to the people who pick up those tools and make those projects.  

Tobi: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I think we, again, I go back to what I was writing around what’s a community and what’s a cult and what’s the difference. 

One of the differences I do think is communities, in my mind, ideally I’m speaking in a completely ideal terms, and of course, there’s problems are abound. But when I think of communities, I think of not having a centralized, heroic leader, charismatic leader. I think of shared power. 

When I think of true community work together, true association work together, I think of that power sharing and that structural, the way you decide to set up your community or the way it evolves. And I think of cults as that charismatic leader who the community work is for that person’s benefit, not for the mutual benefit of all members. So that’s the way I kind of like parse it out. 

And I think people just have to be on point to think, think through, and be self-critical in their own organizations about power sharing. And, I think the more we can share power, the more we can make sure that all perspectives are heard for example. You talked earlier about the sort of pipeline of leadership in organizations and for volunteers to follow a pathway where they can become more, have a bigger say, even in shaping the policy of the organization itself is interesting to consider, as well as how we grow our own leaders within these associations.  

Elisabeth: And those lead to principles of design for voluntary efforts, right? So providing for meaningful participation, meaningful circulation through different leadership positions, shared membership or collaboration with other organizations as opposed to really high either or you’re in or you’re out kinds of organizations. 

So you could begin to make a list of the features of voluntary organizations that not only tend to be effective, but also tend to be more democratic.  

Tobi: Fantastic. This has been such fun. Thank you so much for joining me. I hope our listeners are enjoying this as much as I am. Let me ask you one more question as we wrap up. What are you most excited about in the year ahead? 

Elisabeth: What am I most excited about? Excited. Holding my breath, clinging tight to my sheet. We’re living in a moment of inflection and uncertainty and I am watching all the time to see how it’s going to turn out. These are indeed interesting times. 

Tobi: Absolutely. Absolutely. So tell us how can people learn more about your research, your books, how to get in touch with you if they’re interested in learning more? We’ll obviously, I’ll include a link to the Civics Gift book in the show notes, but is there anything else you’d like to add in terms of folks reaching out?  

Elisabeth: So, I’m in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, so you can find me on their website. The book is published by the University of Chicago Press. And if you want to support a great nonprofit that is only recently a nonprofit having been a co-op before, you can order it from the seminary co-op, which is one of the truly great bookstores in this country. So support a good operation.  

Tobi: Yeah, Absolutely. That bookstore, is that the University of Chicago? Correct? 

Elisabeth: Yes.  

Tobi: I remember when I went to grad school in Chicago, I used to travel down on the train and walk over and go into the basement and cruise around because it was quite cozy down there. 

Elisabeth: It’s in a new location now. So it’s not the old basement of the Divinity School but it’s very nearby and a wonderful organization for all of us who love books.  

Tobi: Yeah. Fantastic. So gang, if you’re looking forward to reading Liz’s book, we’ll put a link to the seminary bookstore in the show notes as well, so folks can grab it there.  

Elisabeth: Okay. Or from the press, I should say. 

Tobi: There you go. So thank you so much for joining us today. Thanks everybody for listening in. If you liked what you heard today, I hope you’ll share it with a friend. And don’t forget to like us, rate us, post a comment, we’d love to hear what you thought about the episode. And don’t forget to join us next week, same time, same place on the Volunteer Nation.

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Volunteer Nation Podcast. If you enjoyed it, please be sure to subscribe, rate and review so we can reach people like you who want to improve the impact of their good cause. Bring more tips and notes from the show. Check us out at Tobijohnson.com. We’ll see you next week for another installment of Volunteer Nation.