IT is America's most distinguished virtue. It is the thing about the United States that we can speak about with [the] most pride."Robert Payton is talking about philanthropy, something he defines as voluntary action for the public good. "There is no other society that I know of that has ever relied so heavily on voluntary action for the public good as we have," says Mr. Payton, director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. "It's a thing worthy of praise." Payton is at the forefront of a movement that would like to see philanthropy studied as a tradition in American society and established as a discipline at the university level. "I want people all over the place to be thinking, and arguing, and talking, and concerned about this dimension of our activity," he said in a Monitor interview in his office at Indiana University. To some, Payton's regard for charitable giving may seem esoteric. Why should we study good will, giving, the love of human kind? "It's at the very heart of democracy," Payton declares. It is a tradition in the United States that has characterized our society ever since it emerged. Philanthropy is "where we get involved with the needs of the community on a voluntary, nonpolitical, non-economic basis. And it's the thing that makes our democracy work. It's the right of people to come together to do the public's business with no public mandate, not for private gain but for the public good or the common good, for the sake of the community. And we have a long tradition of that kind of activity," he says. Consider: More than 98 million people in the US serve as volunteers. An equal number probably contribute. That's some 200 million participants in a country of 250 million people. "How does this tradition get passed on from one generation to the next. How do we learn this?" asks Payton. He refers to charity and volunteerism as the "third sector," government being first and the marketplace second. The third sector represents more than $122 billion in contributions and more than one million nonprofit organizations served by millions of employees and tens of millions of volunteers, he says. It also has a major influence on business and government. "If we pay more attention to where people give their money and where they give their volunteer time, we would learn a lot more about what's on the minds of the voters," he suggests. Tradition. Democracy. Voluntary. Greater good. These words are flags waving in Payton's speech. Philanthropy has a lot to do with the First Amendment and the freedom of expression, association, and to raise money, he says. "You can make choices as to whether you're going to work for the children's museum or the green house or whatever it is you choose to volunteer for," he says. "It's not required, like being a taxpayer or now - male or female - serving in the military, those kinds of things. It's nothing obligatory. And you get no monetary, private benefit out of it.... You're doing it for some good larger than yourself - for people, that is to say, for whom you have no personal responsibility." Now try to envision a system with no tradition of voluntary service, Payton challenges - a place where the government has substantially done everything or decided what would be done. "What Eastern Europeans have told me is that the word 'voluntary' is a bad word because it means you're going to have to do work but not get paid for it," he says. With all the extraordinary change in Central and Eastern Europe, he adds, "Now ... is a good time to ask ourselves, What makes us a democracy? What do we have that helps us function as a democracy that they may not have?" Robert Payton is a pioneer. He is considered the first to carry the title "Professor of philanthropic studies." His past positions have included president of Hofstra University and C.W. Post College in New York, US ambassador to the Republic of Cameroon, president of the Exxon Education Foundation, and scholar-in-residence at the University of Virginia. He is author of "Philanthropy: Voluntary Action for the Public Good." "His leadership was absolutely unparalleled in terms of getting this movement started," says Virginia Hodgkinson, vice president of Independent Sector, a national forum for encouraging giving, volunteering, and not-for-profit initiatives. "It is his great enthusiasm, leadership, and commitment that helped to bring the major growth in the academic philanthropy field," she says. As director of the philanthropy center, Payton isn't just out to increase philanthropy's visibility: He wants it institutionalized and preserved. To date, there are about 23 academic philanthropy centers in the United States. Indiana University's center considers itself unique for emphasizing not only the practical side of philanthropy but also the liberal arts side. Their masters program, for example, will include not only fund-raising and nonprofit management, but history, culture, values, and ethics a s well. IN Payton's eyes, the topic of philanthropy should fuel discussions and debates. How should we best help the homeless? Some people say voluntary giving takes pressure off the government, which needs to solve the problem. Some say that by helping the homeless, you're not helping them "get out of that"; they need work. On an academic level, Payton throws out such questions as: "Should college students be required to participate in community service? Should students be rewarded for voluntary service? Should there be limits on what kind of voluntary associations are permitted to do things...? Why should organizations be tax exempt? What's considered 'ethical' in fund raising? "Have you ever been a volunteer? Of course you have. But my guess is that no one ever taught you," says Payton. "When you were in college, you didn't ever take a course that had anything to do with this. And some of the courses you took - like your economics course, maybe your psychology course - say that people don't behave that way, they just behave in terms of their self-interest in some sense or they are required to do. So if you want good works to be done, the government has to do it, or you have to pay people for it." One of the principles of why people usually give is "Someone helped me," says Payton. He was helped by a scholarship that got him through college, and "The way I repay the good works done for me is by the good works I do for others in turn. A fundamental principle of good works is to pass it on.... "What the university says is we're a two-sector society," he concludes. "And what some of us are arguing is that we're better seen, better understood as a three-sector society. So what we want to try to do is to study that."