How the National Committee on Volunteers Worked

Volunteerism Takes Root in the United States

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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