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Bringing volunteerism back in vogue?

President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act into law on April 21st, which fell within National Volunteer Week. The measure will expand AmeriCorps openings for volunteers from 75,000 to 250,000 positions and increase funding by 25 percent. It also ties service to education, raising an educational stipend paid to volunteers to $5,350, and creates a $50-million "Social Innovation Fund" to provide matching grants to nonprofit organizations.

In a White House press briefing, the president noted that the "nation’s story begins with a call to volunteer. Confronting the injustices of tyranny and small odds of victory, patriots rallied one another to serve a cause greater than themselves. … Volunteers change lives and strengthen our Nation and our world." Almost two centuries ago during his travels through America, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville touted the volunteer spirit by saying, "The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens."

In a speech preceding his signing the bill, Obama also noted that Michelle Obama had left her job at a Chicago law firm to be the founding director of an AmeriCorps program that trains young people for careers in public service. "Michelle can tell you the transformation that occurred in her life as a consequence of being able to follow her passions, follow her dream," he said.

According to Points of Light Institute CEO Michelle Nunn, volunteerism is surging. "We are seeing enormous increases in volunteerism as well as increases in the demand for volunteers," she said, citing a 60 percent increase this year in the number of volunteers supporting communities through the institute’s national network of connector organizations. In Illinois, more than 66,000 people participate in national service each year through 144 projects and programs, the Corporation for National and Community Service reports.

Blogger Nick Gillespie isn’t convinced, though, that the nation should pay volunteers, writing in Reason Online, "The law shovels out $5.7 billion of your taxes over the next five years to ‘boost volunteerism’ at AmeriCorps and elsewhere. In an era of trillions of dollars in wasteful spending, that’s a real bargain. …First, public or national service is profoundly un-American as a historical concept… This is especially true when it is paid service even as those participating and spending your tax dollars luxuriate in the silky-smooth language of altruism. Which, last time I checked, was supposed to be free."

However, the Obama Administration has taken the opposite approach. President Obama has nominated Maria Eitel, president of the Nike Foundation, to become chief executive officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Points of Light Institute will convene the 2009 National Conference on Volunteering and Service in San Francisco June 22-24 "to tap into the renewed enthusiasm for volunteering to meet critical community needs and participate in vital conversations about the future of service and volunteering in America."

Is volunteerism important for civic engagement and why?  Will expanding AmeriCorps help improve communities? What impact will Obama’s support for volunteerism have on society? What are potential drawbacks to this expansion? Is there a danger that volunteerism will be expanded to replace necessary social services? Can volunteerism create substantial social change? Will Obama’s support of volunteering bring more people into public service?

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