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Volunteers: third sector of the US economy

It is highly appropriate that a National Volunteer Week (April 27-May 3) has been set aside to recognize and appreciate the millions of Americans who donate their time, energy, and talent to the communities. The time has also come to recognize volunteers in the aggregate with respect to their vital role in the American economy.

For too long, the state of America's economy has been viewed as falling into two distinct sectors -- government and business --which compete for people, for investment of capital, and for power. And various leaders debate over which of the two sectors is most likely to solve the great problems of our time.

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Most Americans are unaware of the scope of the third sector of our economy: the volunteer sector. Yet progress in many areas of American life, such as health care, education, law enforcement, religion, and the arts is intimately tied into this key third sector.

Volunteerism is often defined only in terms of the delivery of human and social services provided by millions of individuals who supplement the efforts of paid professionals in institutional and agency settings. But volunteerism is much more. Volunteerism is a way in which both private citizens and corporations express concern for their community and for others, as well as accept responsibility for their well-being.

From the 1974 US Census Bureau survey, some simplified statistics will serve to put the size and importance of this volunteer sector into perspective.

* One out of every four Americans over the age of 13 is involved in some sort of volunteer work. That's 37 million volunteers, about 41 percent of whom are adult males. Their service yield an equivalent of 3.5 million persons working full time for a year. If they received a salary, it would be valued at $34 billion.

* There are at least 1 million identifiable volunteer organizations.

* 330 major corporations and 175 labor affiliates are actively seeking to encourage and facilitate employee involvement in volunteer organizations. Many more have probably escaped our notice.

As impressive as these statistics are, I suspect the latest national census will produce even more impressive figures.

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Government is supported by taxes, business by its profits. The third sector is supported principally by voluntary contributions of which 85 percent comes from private individuals. The fact that so much of the third sector is individual and local in nature does not make it necessarily superior to government and business. But it does make it different.

There is a common thread that is woven through the volunteer sector -- a commitment to one's community and people without benefit of personal profit. Volunteers deliver at a more responsive level, providing help that is sensitive to local needs and life styles.Volunteers deliver at a level of dignity and respect for the recipient frequently missing in government organizations.

There has been a 50-year trend of America's growing dependence upon government to finance programs. But we have now reached a critical point where it becomes imperative to consider policies that maintain a sound balance between our private and public spheres.

Communities throughout the country are turning away from government as the provider of last resort and looking toward the volunteer organizations to serve the needs of their communities. Today, the necessity for that transfer is as strong as ever, particularly when President Reagan is working to reduce or contain government programs and is encouraging the volunteer sector to fill in those gaps.

It is important that the problems of the volunteer sector be confronted and solved. Those of us who would applaud such an attitude now have an obligation to provide the leadership that the volunteer sector needs to meet this challenge.

Today business is becoming more and more involved in the volunteer sector. Companies are granting release-time to individual volunteers, lending executives to volunteer organizations, contributing to skills banks, allowing employees to take social leaves, preparing prospective retirees to participate in volunteer activities, as well as, of course, contributions to organizations.

Business cannot pursue profits in a vacuum, detached from the interests of society as a whole. Nor can business forfeit the initiative to build a stable, prosperous and healthy community to someone else. There simply is no one else. The world outside corporate suites isn't made up of adversaries but of their own employees, shareholders, customers, and neighbors. The well-being of corporations is inseparably tied to the well-being of the community.

Business can no longer sit back and tell itself, as some economists advocate, that social progress is not the business of business. It is a question of whether business will have the vision and good sense to work with its partners in the public and volunteer sectors to help shape the nature of that change.

In the balance of this decade, we as a nation are facing problems of such magnitude that we cannot any longer afford the luxury of permitting the three major sectors of our society to be adversaries. We must work together to create a new era in which the public, private, and volunteer sectors work cooperatively to stimulate and direct posi tion change.

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