How the National Committee on Volunteers Worked

Herbert Hoover formed the National Committee on Volunteers to help address the overwhelming demand for aid in Depression-era America.
Herbert Hoover formed the National Committee on Volunteers to help address the overwhelming demand for aid in Depression-era America.
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You may have never heard of the National Committee on Volunteers (NCV), but its work evolved into some humanitarian organizations based in the United States that you're probably very familiar with. To understand why the National Committee on Volunteers was created and how it worked, let's take a look at what was going on at the time it existed.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, scores of Americans faced hard times, much like conditions that accompanied the economic recession that began in 2007. Lots of people lost their entire life savings when the stock market crashed in 1929, and numerous banks closed their doors in the years that followed. As you may recall, money in the banks wasn't insured at that time, so thousands of people lost every penny they had. There were few social welfare programs like Social Security or the government-funded food and housing assistance that exist today. Couple this with mass unemployment and the continued influx of immigrants, and you've got a disaster on your hands. John Steinbeck based his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Grapes of Wrath" on the desperation of people living in that era.


The U.S. government realized it couldn't solve this crisis on its own, so it called on average Joes like you and me to lend a hand. Herbert Hoover took office just nine months before the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and was known for his pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality earlier in his government career. But during his presidency, Hoover tried to mitigate the effects of the Depression by promoting volunteerism and government intervention. In 1932 -- an election year -- the United States formed the National Committee on Volunteers to help address the overwhelming demand for aid like soup kitchens and bread lines [source: Points of Light].

Now, let's find out how the organization worked and what it accomplished in its short lifespan.

Benjamin Franklin is well-known for his electricity experiments, but he also organized a group of volunteer firemen.
Benjamin Franklin is well-known for his electricity experiments, but he also organized a group of volunteer firemen.

Volunteerism has deep roots in the United States. These roots stretch back to the early 1700s when Benjamin Franklin established the first volunteer fireman's squad. But the National Committee on Volunteers (NCV) was the first formal effort to match volunteers throughout the country with opportunities to serve in their communities, somewhat like the Corporation for National and Community Service or the HandsOn Network.

The organization existed in its original form for only a year until it was absorbed by the National Conference of Social Work. But in 1932, it set up more than 33 volunteer bureaus. People consulted these bureaus to find out where they could pitch in and help with widespread problems, such as unemployment, poverty and social turmoil [source: Points of Light]. These referral agencies existed before the NCV came around, and you can still find them today, like the one in Bloomington, Ind., for instance.

World War II shifted the nation's focus to organizing civilian support, so in 1941 the National Committee on Volunteers was disbanded and its 50 volunteer bureaus were put under the authority of the Office of Civilian Defense. For the next few years, Defense Councils operated civil defense volunteer offices throughout the country, engaging more than 4,300 volunteers to do everything from baking cakes for soldiers to serving with the Red Cross [source: Brooks].

Toward the close of the war, the NCV reignited its original mission and partnered with groups like the Association of Junior Leagues of America and the Community Chests and Councils of America (which is known today as the United Way). These organizations worked together to determine what community services were needed and to mobilize altruistic servants through volunteer bureaus. By the early 1950s, there were more than 81 of these agencies throughout North America; the cause united volunteers in both the United States and Canada.

Since then, what was formerly known as the NCV has been like a chameleon, adapting and evolving to the changing social landscape. Its work has continued under the guises of the Association of Volunteer Bureaus, the National Center for Voluntary Action and VOLUNTEER -- just to name a few. By the 1990s, more than 500 volunteer centers existed in the United States, and by 2005, the Volunteer Center National Network worked with 75,000 organizations to connect 2.5 million people with endless opportunities to serve their communities. Today, Americans can access Web sites like to find volunteer opportunities.

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