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Volunteerism & Democracty

Posted on July 29, 2019 at 9:26 AM by Curt LaFond


Volunteerism is an expression of political freedom that exists only in a democratic society. That fact came home to me through a recent experience, so I want to explain why I believe the claim is relevant to CAP’s strategic goals, even though "democratic values" might seem out of place in the workaday matter of charting CAP's future. Perhaps this blog post will spark a discussion about volunteerism's democratic commitments and, in turn, the type of organization we necessarily must be. Restated, this is a think-piece, so if you come to the Cadet Blog just for cadet-related technical announcements, this essay is of a different sort.


Every volunteer is a democrat, small d -- someone who champions democracy. I’ve long known that intellectually, but I didn’t truly own the principle until recently when I briefed the CAP Cadet Program to flag officers from a friendly monarchy so unlike the land that we love. When you’re working with a translator to converse with men from a distant kingdom, you become more attuned to the assumptions and political commitments baked-into American language.

Service Without Pay. A good translation expresses every critical attribute of an idea, not just one attribute among many. To translate volunteerism, it would be insufficient merely to reference its first quality: the participants’ unpaid status. Prisoners sentenced to hard labor are in unpaid status; volunteers are more than unpaid. In explaining cadet life to these subjects of an unfamiliar crown, I realized I had to reach for language that went beyond a superficial understanding of volunteerism.

Individual Choice. Beyond the matter of wages is the second quality of volunteerism, individual choice. Volunteerism cannot be compelled; compulsory service or toil without pay might be demanded in some societies, but none call that volunteerism. Volunteers choose to serve, and likewise, they may choose to walk. This fact makes leadership so challenging in a volunteer organization. Only a free citizen can exercise a choice to serve or not serve. To be a volunteer is to be a citizen who may, if she chooses, contribute time, talent, and treasure to a collective endeavor that she deems important. If you live in a society where free choice is not so emphatically part of the national character as it is here in America, volunteerism will be a strange concept.

The Common Good. The third quality of volunteerism is the pursuit of a common good, not a private benefit to a profit-seeking enterprise or the ruling class. Democracy is rule by the people. A democracy has citizens – not mere residents – who attempt to create a common good for themselves and their neighbors. We Americans recognize this in the responsibilities of voting, jury duty, paying taxes, etc., which are inconveniences we agree to suffer so that we can enjoy the common good of civilized society. Democratic self-rule is expressed through volunteerism, where we choose to add to that common good. I think of the first CAP volunteers during WWII. They were too old or otherwise ineligible to fight the Nazi menace, yet they determined to get together as volunteers and find a way to contribute to the war effort, the common good.

Leadership by Example. Volunteerism’s final quality is in the example volunteers set for their neighbors. The volunteer could express her freedom in innumerable ways but chooses service to others. This choice-making tells everyone who knows her that of all possible goods the volunteer might pursue with her life, she devotes a portion of it to service. Therefore, the volunteer’s actions implicitly propose that civic spirit as a model for others. Volunteers lead their democracy.

The great witness to American society, Alexis de Tocqueville, realized that volunteerism is a phenomenon found only in democracies, and it’s one of the reasons that made him fall in love with America.

In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded.   Democracy in America, 2.2.5


Quest for Diversity. Volunteerism expresses democratic values. So, too, does a second topic I’ll briefly address, an organization’s quest for diversity.

Every Air Force general who has visited NHQ in recent years has asked CAP’s help in making the Air Force more diverse. Accordingly, senior CAP leaders intend to draft a strategic goal toward that end. We need CAP to become more diverse in gender, race, and so many other visible and invisible characteristics. Air Force leaders hope that if CAP becomes more diverse, particularly our cadet corps, eventually that diversity will flow to the Air Force.

But why does the Air Force and CAP need to be more diverse? Because they are public organizations under a democratic society. Even more, any nation claiming to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people, needs its armed forces to resemble the demographic traits of that people. A monochromatic force may be democratic in theory but is mercenary by fact, while a diverse force is evidence of an authentically democratic society.

Diversity, volunteerism, and democracy are intertwined. If you want one, you must have the others. These philosophical reflections cause me to propose, for sake of discussion, the following strategic goal for CAP:

Model volunteerism and servant leadership as a respected nonprofit arising from a diverse, democratic society.

I believe Tocqueville would recognize the unity of volunteerism, diversity, and democracy in that goal and respond with applause and envy.


- Curt LaFond



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