Before the events of September 11, social cohesion in this country was on the wane, at least according to Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. His research pointed to a sharp drop in voluntary service and decreasing participation in civic, community, and fraternal groups.
But Putnam’s gloomy view may overstate the case. There are numbers showing a healthy level of social interaction, not the least of which is the rate of volunteering. The Pew Partnership for Civic Change, for instance, recently reported that 54 percent of Americans have performed volunteer work in the past year, while 77 percent have helped a neighbor. Independent Sector says 44 percent of adults volunteer. The late Everett Carll Ladd’s polling elicited similarly positive patterns.
And certainly the cascade of goodwill in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks shows at least a temporary northward trend. Even Putnam concedes “an uptick” since September 11.
But assuming the pendulum of civic participation has swung back in a positive direction, the swing is by no means permanent. For example, already, as 2001 was ending, surveys showed that participation in religious services, which spiked in the aftermath of September 11, reverted to previous levels.
Moreover, before September 11, efforts were already underway to focus Americans on civic-mindedness. Two months before the terrorists struck, Senators Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, and Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, introduced a resolution sponsoring National Civic Participation Week. Originally set for the last week of September but now moved to dovetail with the anniversary of the attacks, the week “is designed to showcase different organizations and activities available to people,” says Robert Hansan, chairman of Participate America. “We’re shining a light.”
Fraying Community Ties?
So as the intensity of emotional reaction to September 11 inevitably recedes, it’s important to know where we stood on September 10. Is our civic glass half empty, as Putnam claims, or half full, as Pew and Ladd suggest?
“Two-thirds of the public feels optimistic that their community’s best years . . . are still ahead,” said Pew in a report this year. And when such optimism prevails, so does the charitable spirit, as expressed in giving of both time and money. “This generally strong sense of community translates directly into heavy community involvement,” the group concluded.
Putnam concurs, to a point. “Volunteering fosters more volunteering . . . organizational involvement seems to inculcate civic skills and a lifelong disposition toward altruism,” he writes. But the downside corollary—that the lattice of underlying organizational involvement is coming apart, spelling trouble for the sustainability of widespread civic involvement—worries Putnam. In the more measurable world of financial giving, he argues that even though individual philanthropy has continued to rise relative to real income in the last 40 years, it has not increased at the same rate as, say, individual spending on recreational goods and services.
A recent move by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, perhaps the organization in this country most dependent on one-on-one volunteering, illustrates both the Pew and Putnam models. It has launched an ambitious plan to recruit 1 million “Bigs” to mentor prospective “Littles” over the next decade, a fivefold increase from its current numbers. At present, in other words, demand is exceeding supply—too many kids in need, too few adults willing to give their time. The social fabric is rent. Checkmate for Putnam.
But not so fast. In essence, Big Brothers Big Sisters’ bold blueprint widens the Pew premise—that voluntary behavior is spurred by a neighborhood’s optimism about its future—to a national level. It is not unlike getting inside the mind of a stock market investor. The investor tries to gauge how Company X will be faring down the road. If it looks like the firm will be doing well, the shares are snapped up. Likewise, when the neighborhood (or country) is optimistic about tomorrow, the residents (or citizens) pitch in.
But the numbers for volunteering are, almost inevitably, fuzzy math. This would be so even if, instead of our reliance on self-reporting, the hours were confirmed by 24/7 video monitoring of every volunteer in the country. A dollar is, after all, a dollar. What, however, is an hour of volunteering? Sometimes it’s worth a great deal, sometimes less. Is the 30 minutes a parent spends reading to a classroom equivalent to what that volunteer is paid at work? Is the child more motivated to learn as a result of that bonding than by the local computer retailer’s donation of thousands of dollars in hardware and software?
Or, alternatively, what of a parent who struggles at the reading session, unable to tame an unruly gaggle—would the time of the parent, teacher, and children have been better spent had the kids simply been recharging their minds by exercising on the playground?
True, the money in philanthropy is likewise either wasted, wisely spent, or, as in the initial case of September 11-related donations given to the Red Cross, partially spent and partially invested for the long term, upsetting many donors. But we at least have a rough idea of money’s potential value when it slips over the transom. We don’t as consistently know what the value will be when a volunteer walks in the door.
The Big Brothers program again illuminates. Cay Cass, a spokeswoman for the national headquarters in Philadelphia, is the first to acknowledge that not every “Big” has the same amount of time or energy to devote to a “Little.” The million-mentor goal is in fact premised on the realization that many volunteers are reluctant to part with their weekends and evenings. A number of mentors only spend a couple of lunchtimes per week with their partners at their schools. It is of course hoped, says Cass, that ties will bind, resulting in time spent together at other hours of the week. Still, Big Brothers’ initial need is for volunteers themselves, not necessarily hours logged.
“We know that the mentors are busy,” says Cass. “But we hope that they’ll like [Big Brothers] enough to make a difference.”
Service for Self?
In addition to the inherent difficulty of measurement, modern day volunteerism suffers from a definition disorder. Is it, for instance, “volunteering” or “coercion” when one’s partnership in a law firm or privilege to practice at a hospital is dependent on at least a modicum of such activity? (I will leave discussion of the corporate component—profitable companies that, either through guilt or the desire to reap a public relations bonanza, coax employees into helping at “volunteer events”—for another forum.)
Take membership in the National Honor Society, a valuable achievement for those high school students who wish to be noticed by selective college admissions offices. To be admitted to the NHS, one must have excellent grades, but that is the minimum. Leadership is also required, as well as community service.
Pat Scanlan of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), which founded and supervises the NHS, says a student must perform both individual and group service. The student might, for instance, pull shifts at a soup kitchen, while the NHS chapter as a whole undertakes to fix up a playground in a failing neighborhood. But each school sets its standards. If the NASSP were to acquire evidence that a chapter was not living up to the spirit of the NHS, disciplinary action would be taken, she says.
And in Maryland, the state itself became the first to impose community service on high school students as a condition of graduation: no diploma without 75 hours of service to the community and service-related classroom time. Districts in other states and cities have followed suit.
While service through the National Honor Society may redound to society’s benefit, it’s hardly at the level of selflessness of, say, Mother Teresa, given the luster that NHS membership adds to a college application. As for the Maryland requirement, that’s obviously not the same thing as volunteering at all. For some kids the requirement no doubt resonates with all the spontaneity of an employee “voluntarily” dropping the “suggested” contribution into the kitty for the boss’s annual holiday gift. On the other hand, in fulfilling the requirement and witnessing the needs of others, a student may be infused with the positive feeling of volunteering (as noted by Putnam above), just as the horrors of September 11 sparked the charitable impulse in millions. Hansan, of Participate America, echoes Putnam in suggesting that National Civic Participation Week, if integrated into a school’s curriculum, can help “foster the next step” of voluntarism in young citizens.
But what is the value of the young volunteer? Surely, for example, a college would be acting appropriately if it looked favorably on a prospective student who serves others; such service shows engagement, caring, kindness, and a host of other desirable qualities. But is the essence of plain, goodhearted personal giving diluted to the extent that volunteering becomes just another part of the school schedule, one more ticket to punch on the way to the good school, good job, and good life?
And what does this mean after September 11—will the explosion of giving and volunteerism replicate and eventually institutionalize itself? During the Progressive Era in the first decade of the last century, Putnam writes, most of the familiar nationwide youth organizations—Big Brothers, Boy and Girl Scouts, Boys Clubs, and the like—were founded as Americans began to take seriously the notion of fostering civic attachments. As this first decade progresses, and as September 11 gives way to “normalcy,” it remains to be seen whether this extraordinary moment in the nation’s history is just that—a moment—or the beginning of a new era.
Kent Allen writes about the nonprofit sector; he is also a news editor at U.S. News & World Report.