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America's Quest to Reinvent Volunteerism

During the holiday season, Americans' generosity with their time is as unambiguous as an opened Christmas present. So many people sign up to wield serving spoons that soup kitchens set up work shifts to accommodate all the volunteers.

But after the holidays pass and the ladles are stored, what happens to the goodwill?

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To some experts, volunteerism in America is in crisis. Parent-teacher associations and service clubs such as Rotary are less influential, and some Boy Scout councils struggle to find scoutmasters. But others find reason for optimism in the rising prominence of nonprofit associations and the vigor of church groups.

The state of volunteerism has been of interest to presidents from Kennedy to Clinton, and most launched programs to spur citizens to lend a helping hand. But perhaps at no time has volunteerism been the focus of so much study and debate.

Two forces make this so. One is the push for smaller government in Washington. The other is a budding national movement for the renewal of civility. Both emphasize the crucial role of community involvement in a vibrant and well-mannered society.

"As government moves toward doing less, the people are rallying," argues Kevin Starr, the historian and state librarian of California. "Problems are rising up that government can't deal with, hence the rise in the nonprofit sector. Volunteerism is heading toward a golden age."

One man who shares Mr. Starr's optimism is Robert Putnam, the Harvard University professor who two years ago sparked the debate over volunteer association with his essay "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital."

In the piece, Professor Putnam argues that "the vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined over the past several decades." He draws his conclusions from several annual statistical studies. In the 15 years from 1974 to 1989, according to the Labor Department's Current Population Surveys, for example, the number of adults volunteering declined from 24 percent to 20 percent. Since 1979, fraternal organizations that had expanded throughout most of the century, such as the Lions, the Elks, and the Shriners, experienced membership decreases of as much as 44 percent.

Declining political participation by now is legendary. According to annual surveys by the Roper Organization, public distrust of Washington has more than doubled since 1966. The number of Americans who attended a public meeting on town or school affairs dropped from 22 percent in 1973 to 13 percent in 1993.

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The list goes on. Membership in the League of Women Voters is down 42 percent since 1969. Participation in bowling leagues fell 40 percent during the Reagan and Bush administrations.

So what's behind Putnam's optimism? Volunteerism in America, he argues in an interview, appears to be on a 100-year cycle, like floods on the Mississippi, and it's about time for it to be reinvented.

"In 1896, we'd just been through 30 to 40 years of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, which rendered obsolete whole stocks of social capital," he says. People left farms for the cities, crime soared, the wealth gap grew. "But we fixed it then. By the end of the 19th century, most of the major institutions of American life today were invented - the Boy Scouts, the Urban League, the Red Cross.

"There are deep parallels between that period and our own," he adds. The economy is in the middle of another great change, from industry to information. Society is in flux. "Our task as a country is to reinvent the Boy Scouts - to be as creative as the people who created the organizations we now have. I'm tremendously excited and energized ... by the birth of this new social movement."

As the new institutions devoted to the study of civil renewal are finding, Putnam's task is a tall one. The causes of erosion to existing community structures are complex. The family is struggling: If both parents are present, they often both must work, leaving little time to coach Little League or participate on the volunteer town council. Youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts struggle to protect themselves against the rising number of potential legal liabilities. Communities that are more diverse pose various social and economic challenges.

The concept of community, too, is changing. No longer centered around our streets, schools, and churches, social interaction can now take place across continents. The Internet has made possible the formation of communities of people who never meet each other face to face, but who share increasingly homogenous connections.

As various groups examine ways to reinvent the structures of community, they may find that the course of civic participation is affected by everything from the role of government to the application of new technology.

"It is our hope," says Pam Solo, executive director of the Boston-based Institute for Civil Society, "that by focusing on rebuilding local institutions, we can begin the process of rebuilding a civil society. But we must examine the relationship between government and business and its relevance in problem- solving."

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