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United Way Blog

Volunteering, Service and Democracy

Volunteers have shaped the U.S. since its founding and continue to contribute to its protection and prosperity. Benjamin Franklin believed that citizen service was essential to our democracy and founded our country’s first volunteer fire agency. Clara Barton led volunteers to help the wounded in the Civil War and later created the American Red Cross. Jane Addams’ settlement house movement led to significant social reforms for the urban poor.

Civic voluntary activity is not only an integral part of our nation’s history, it is also essential to the health of our democracy. If history is any guide, we can help our country grow and thrive by promoting volunteer service, especially among young people. United Way mobilizes part-time volunteers of all ages and also sponsors AmeriCorps and VISTA members to serve communities for a year or more through United Way. We hope there will come a day, however, when most young Americans participate in at least a year of service and “Where did you serve?” is a commonly asked question.

That’s why United Way supports The Franklin Project, which envisions a United States where national service would be voluntary, but expected, in the military or as a civilian for a full year or more at modest pay, and a rite of passage for every young American. Answering the call by General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal, for large scale national service, The Aspen Institute and others have created The Franklin Project to dramatically expand the number of civilian service opportunities and make serving feasible for all Americans regardless of their family’s finances.

In 2011, AmeriCorps received 580,000 applications for only 80,000 positions, only half of which are fulltime. To meet the existing demand, The Franklin Project aims to create 1 million civilian national service opportunities every year for Americans between the ages of 18 and 28.  A one million-strong civilian service corps would be on par with the more than one million Americans on active duty in our Armed Forces.

Children and youth instinctively want to help others, but they won’t wake up on their 18th birthday and suddenly decide that service is important. From a very young age, kids need to have good volunteering experiences, see good volunteer role models, and have other opportunities to learn that national service is a valuable undertaking.  

What are your ideas for creating a culture shift toward service?

We hope you will join United Way in channeling the power of volunteers – of all ages -- to improving our communities. You, too, can LIVE UNITED and be part of an active citizenry and a brighter future.