Voluntarism is the use of, or reliance on voluntary action to maintain an institution, carry out a policy, or achieve an end.[1]

Volunteer management specialist Susan Ellis differentiates between "voluntarism" and "volunteerism":

"Voluntarism" (the older term) refers to everything voluntary. In the United States this includes, for example, religion. It certainly encompasses the entire "voluntary sector," but "voluntary" in the "voluntarism" context means not mandated by law (as government is). Many voluntary sector (nonprofit) agencies have a volunteer board because that is a legal requirement, but may not utilize volunteers in direct service in any way. There are subjects within "voluntarism" that have nothing to do with volunteers: things like UBIT legislation; proposal writing; compensation law.[2]

Varieties of VoluntarismEdit

Voluntary provision of services to religious, civil, medical, educational, environmental and other private or governmental organizations doubtless has a long history. Such volunteer efforts keep expenses down for non-profit and philanthropic organizations, empower individuals and groups to help others, and makes volunteers feel needed.[3]

Voluntarism flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and was empowering especially to women who had been excluded from political participation outside the home. Women’s organizations dealt with social problems created by rapid industrialization and urbanization, and by massive immigration which were not addressed by institutions of the time and had a great influence on American political culture.[4]

Voluntarism also is used to describe non-coercive methods of recruiting soldiers, from participants in European and American military service to youthful combatants in civil war in Sierra Leone.[5]

Voluntarism has been a phrase used in labor relations. In Britain, it means the state refrains from directly intervening in industrial relations.[6] In the early American labor movement it meant trade unions should focus on “pure and simple” gains in wages and working conditions and not independent labor politics and industrial unionism.[7]

In his book “Willful Liberalism: Voluntarism and Individuality in Political Theory and Practice,” Johns Hopkins University Political Science professor Richard E. Flathman argues that liberals must understand more about individuality and self-reliance and self-responsibility and therefore be more acceptance of voluntary action and less concerned with ordering political society. He notes that “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations,” which he describes as “of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.”[8]

In sociology, voluntarism is an important aspect of the action theory of Talcott Parsons, as well as other theories of social action and agency.

Free market advocates, libertarians and anarchists call for voluntary efforts to replace most or all government efforts, using both moral and utilitarian arguments.[9] Voluntaryists hold that the only legitimate interactions between and among people are those done on a voluntary basis.[10]

Examples from American historyEdit

Voluntary provision of services to religious, civil, medical, educational, environmental and other private or governmental organizations doubtless has a long history.

  • William Penn, who established the Quakers in the late 17th century, preached taking responsibility for others and improving the world.
  • Cotton Mather, who lived during the colonial period, encouraged the formation of associations and causes.
  • Benjamin Franklin organized a voluntary militia in Quaker-controlled Pennsylvania, whose pacifist legislature refused to support the American revolutionary war.
  • Alexis de Tocqueville noted the unusually large number of voluntary associations in America.
  • The Underground Railroad was a network of volunteers who helped slaves escape from their captors in the South.
  • Dorothea Dix, a nurse, recruited and trained other women as nurses during the Civil War.
  • Clara Barton also served as a Civil War nurse and went on to establish the American Red Cross in 1881 for relief of natural disasters.
  • Jane Addams opened a settlement house in 1889 to teach volunteers how to help the poor improve their lives.
  • The Peace Corps was established by President John F. Kennedy to help the poor in both the United States and other countries.
  • In 1995, 93 million Americans volunteered an average of 4.3 hours per week.[3]

See alsoEdit


  1. Definitions of voluntarism at and
  2. Susan J. Ellis, “Volunt/ar/eer/ism: What's the Difference?”
  3. 3.0 3.1 Susan Perkins, Voluntarism, paper for Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
  4. Kathryn Kish Sklar, The "Quickened Conscience", report from the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, University of Maryland.
  5. Military History: Second World War: Homefront, 1940-45; John O'Sullivan, “From Voluntarism to Conscription: Congress and Selective Service, 1940–1945,” 1982; The End of Conscription in Europe? Christopher Jehn and Zachary Selden, National Security Division, Congressional Budget Office, United States Congress, 2002; Krijn Peters, [ Re-Examining Voluntarism, Youth Combatants in Sierra Leone, Institute for Security Studies, Monograph No 100, April 2004.
  6. United Kingdom, Voluntarism.
  7. David Brian Robertson, Voluntarism Against the Open Shop: Labor and Business Strategies in the Battle for American Labor Markets, Cambridge University Press, Studies in American Political Development, (1999), 13: 146-185.
  8. Richard E. Flathman, Willful Liberalism: Voluntarism and Individuality in Political Theory and Practice, Cornell University Press, 1992, Introduction, 76.
  9. David T. Beito, Peter Gordon, and Alexander Tabarrok, editors, The Voluntary City: Choice, Community and Civil Society. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002; Doug Bandow, Voluntarism Should Be Voluntary, The Freeman, August 1999, Vol. 49 No. 8; David Osterfeld, Anarchism and the Public Goods Issue: Law, Courts and the Police, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol1., No. 9, Winter, 1998, 56.
  10. Herbert, Auberon, The Principles of Voluntaryism and Free Life.

External linksEdit

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