WASHINGTON — FOR George Bush personally, voluntarism is a first principle of his patrician upbringing, from teaching Episcopal Sunday School to helping found the Midland, Texas, YMCA. As President, Mr. Bush is attempting to build a structure for spreading the virtues and rewards of volunteer service to people, especially youths, of all social classes and circumstances.
The Points of Light Foundation, unveiled by the President Thursday in New York, is at the heart of Bush's ambitions for a ``kinder, gentler'' nation. He envisions it as a $50 million-a-year networking center for finding and promoting successful local volunteer programs and encouraging people to volunteer for them.
Bush's program is destined for a lower profile than the calls to service of past presidents, such as John Kennedy's Peace Corps or Lyndon Johnson's Volunteers in Service to America. Bush's call is not for a new federal volunteer program, but to look away from government to the ``points of light'' around the country.
This initiative is also less dramatic than other calls for national service, most notably the proposal by Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia for full-time civilian or military service that is mandatory for recipients of federal student loans.
Bush's plan has been generally well received. An aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who has proposed a volunteer service program, called it ``positive and useful.''
James Joseph, director of the Council on Foundations, noted: ``It does appear on the surface that it's a superb idea.''
However successful the Points of Light Foundation is at stirring up American voluntarism, not even its skeptics doubt its closeness to this President's core values.
White House chief of staff John Sununu even noted in April that national service could become the ``defining aspect'' of the Bush presidency.
Although the volunteer efforts should be aimed at the most pressing problems of the day, such as drug abuse and homelessness, the real benefits are intended for the volunteers themselves, according to John Galletta, a White House aide on the foundation project.
The premise is that volunteer service can get to the root cause of many social ills by restoring a sense of community and engagement. ``Too many people are disconnected and feeling alienated from society,'' Mr. Galletta says.
There is a more familiarly Republican side to this program as well - the notion of tapping the private sector to fill in for the failures of government. ``You've seen a lot of federal programs that have failed to solve the problems,'' Galletta says. ``The private sector has the resources. We want to use the programs that work.''
Voluntarism appears to be gaining some ground among young Americans from the low years of the late 1970s - the nadir of the ``me decade.''
``We're seeing a resurgence of the youth movement,'' says Charlotte Lunsford, chairman of a national study of volunteers for the American Red Cross. The biggest concerns tend toward homelessness, drug abuse, drunk driving, and rape, she says.
Steve Smith, a political scientist at Duke University who studies philanthropy and voluntarism, says most US service organizations are reporting increases in volunteers, although not they are not dramatic. Many groups formed in the 1960s and '70s, he adds, pushed reformist social agendas and attracted politicized volunteers.
Today the volunteers tend to be more interested in the service aspect and less in the political, he says. ``The activism is more pragmatic and professionalized.''
Surveys taken by Gallup for the Independent Sector, a group representing nonprofit organizations, have shown a different view of the 1980s. According to these studies, the number of Americans who performed volunteer work in any given year held fairly steady at more than 80 million from 1980 through 1987. The percentage of youths age 18 to 24 that did volunteer service dropped from 54 percent to 42 percent. But the hours per week worked by the average volunteer nearly doubled from 2.6 to 4.7, indicating that the level of commitment among volunteers may have deepened considerably.
The White House intends to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to promote voluntarism. The stated aim is to involve the entire population in volunteer service. In fact, the administration appears as concerned about making room for an influx of new volunteers as in stirring them to service.
In a March interview with the Hopewell, N.J.-based NonProfit Times, Gregg Petersmeyer, White House deputy assistant for national service, forecast that an influx of new, young workers could change the mix of some organizations ``somewhat substantially.''
``The President,'' says Galletta, ``doesn't want anybody left out in the cold'' who wants to find a volunteering role.
Bush is asking Congress for $100 million over four years for the foundation. The $25 million a year is to be matched by private contributions, in his plan, to support a $50 million budget.
The money will support a networking, clearinghouse operation where successful programs in Peoria, Ill., or Poughkeepsie, N.Y., can be promoted elsewhere. The plans include local hot lines for matching volunteers with programs. Businesses and other institutions will be asked to donate talented employees to travel full-time promoting volunteer projects among their peers.
The President's exhortations to service are beginning with YES to America, an acronym for Youth Entering Service. YES was the focus of Bush's campaign promise to create a $100 million program promoting voluntarism, especially among youth. But YES has emerged not as an organization, but as what the White House is calling a ``movement.''
Donald Eberly, director of the National Service Secretariat, wishes Bush would offer a more-substantial program of national service. But, he says, ``I think he's very genuine about it. I have to hand it to him for that. His background is one of public service.''