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Volunteering for the 'third sector'

When Americans voted to stop "letting government do it," were they saying that they themselves wouldm do it? President Reagan is playing his part by cutting federal services. In the midst of the first National Volunteer Week since his election, the question is how much individuals and private institutions are prepared to step in and provide what's missing. You don't have to be a President defending his budget to share his confidence that a considerable contribution can be made by traditional American voluntary zeal.

Mr. Reagan s home state has already given an example. After the Proposition 13 ax fell on tax-supported public services, volunteers helped maintain services that otherwise would have been lost. They have been working in libraries, hospitals, schools, consumer-affairs departments. As other states follow the tax-cutting route, such as Massachusetts with its new property tax limitations, the need for volunteers is growing.Even before this trend, clearing houses had sprung up to link people who want to volunteer with the many and often unpublicized avenues for doing so.

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Indeed, volunteerism has become the unsung "third sector" of the American economy (to be placed beside the business and governmental sectors), as insurance executive Robert Van Fossan argues in today's Opinion and Commentary pages. He expects the new census figures to be even more impressive than a bygone survey finding that one out of every four Americans over 13 is involved in volunteer work; that, if they received salaries, the total would be $34 billion.

But threats to volunteerism have arisen at the very time it is demanded more than ever. The economic scramble has encouraged working for pay during off hours when volunteer jobs could otherwise be done. The movement of women into the work force has reduced the hours many once had available to volunteer while hubby did the breadwinning. There is the perennial temptation to let others volunteer because they must enjoy that sort of thing -- whereas many of volunteer may be serving simply because no one else takes the time to.

Mr. Van Fossan tells how business can foster volunteerism. Individuals have only themselves to blame if they fail to seize the opportunities to serve on every hand. This week is an occasion for the nation to say thanks to the volunteers who have already given it so much.

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