American Volunteerism Presents a Stark Contrast with Turkey
Since I arrived in the United States from my native Turkey to take part in the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, I have noticed a stark contrast between the two societies. Americans volunteer their time for social causes much more readily than do Turkish people. What accounts for this difference? I was surprised to see the amount and the extent of volunteering in the U.S, and how central a role this plays in peoples’ everyday lives. I believe there is no other countrt that has the kind of deep-rooted volunteerism that America has. As I meet people from an array of diverse backgrounds, I have come to realize that Americans volunteer because they recognize a need and take responsibility for meeting that need.
Most of the time, they assume this responsibility in addition to their everyday jobs and duties. The roots of this mindset were explained to us during one of our first MMF sessions at the GMF Washington office. Professor Gary Weaver, from American University, outlined the historical and cultural background of volunteering in this society: “You need to work hard,” he explained of the American ethic, because “if you work hard you will be successful.” “There is nothing wrong with being rich,” he said, “as long as you then spend your money as proof that God picked you both to earn money and to spend it.” Weaver highlighted this belief as the foundation of Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth and the American philanthropic tradition.
This mentality also drives American individualism. Americans have a direct relationship with their fellow citizens. Volunteers in the U.S. therefore often work as pioneers, recognizing issues and needs well before the government. They see it as a natural part of their existence and tend to reject government intervention, which is more likely to misunderstand local needs. For example, in New Orleans the outlook of volunteering has been reshaped after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A group called Beacon of Hope has emerged as the hurricane left thousands of people homeless. The group operates in a garage to help people clean their houses or fill out paperwork to apply for insurance payments or loans, and has thus morphed into an institution that empowers people by teaching them how to deal with government institutions.
As I travel around the county, I see that volunteering does not happen in a vacuum. As America evolves, volunteerism continues to be shaped by changes in demographics, family composition, employment patterns, and economics. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 26.8 percent of the U.S. population—or around 64 million people—volunteered for an organization at least once in 2011. Of all age groups, people aged 65 and older gave the highest median number of hours to charity. Older people were most likely to choose a religious organization as the main outlet for their volunteerism. Given these statistics, it seems that volunteering might soon undergo shifts even here in America, the home of volunteerism.
Looking forward, it seems that the composition of volunteers and the content of what they do will change, but the presence and commitment of volunteers will not. We have similar problems in various areas in Turkey, and I believe we too must focus on mobilizing people through volunteerism. We must empower the Turkish people—to stop feeding them fish and teach them how to go fishing themselves.
Asli Kandemir, Reuters, is a 2012 European Marshall Memorial Fellow from Turkey
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.