A call to volunteerism

Jim Ottaway, Jr. (photo by Dion Ogust)

I’ve been interested for a long time in American volunteerism and the truly exceptional role played by philanthropy in American society and its economy. If you add up the generous contributions of American citizens, it comes to a very large part of our economy. Last year alone, according to the National Philanthropic Trust, Americans gave $358.3 billion. This money provides tens of thousands of jobs, as well as all the public services provided by the seemingly countless non-profit organizations that in other European and Asian countries just don’t exist, or if they do exist it’s on a much smaller scale.

I do not like the phrase “American exceptionalism,” especially when it’s used by American politicians to excuse all sorts of arbitrary interventions in other nations. But one aspect of our society that is truly exceptional is our habits of philanthropy and volunteerism.

The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this 175 years ago and wrote about it in his two-volume work Democracy in America. He frequently pointed out what he saw as the peculiar habit of Americans to help each other, whether it be the sick and the poor or people helping each other build farmhouses and raise barns on the prairies or the woods of New England. He’d never seen anything like it before in Europe. What he saw then continues to exist today to a remarkable degree.

Most communities in America are served by volunteer ambulance corps, by volunteer fire companies, by all sorts of volunteer sports organizations – by thousands of public service volunteer activities in our churches and synagogues and mosques. In Europe, almost all these public services are provided by governments, with citizens paying higher taxes than we do, either directly from income taxes, much higher value-added taxes (VATs) or payroll deductions for what we call Social Security and Medicare services. It is a very different political system and tradition in Europe. Most Americans don’t know this difference, and are surprised if you tell them that we are the most generous people in the world.

Look at the giving of some successful corporate chieftains of our time, wealthy hedge fund managers, continuing the tradition of fabulous generosity practiced by our most ruthless robber barons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Think of Carnegie. Think of Rockefeller. Think of Mellon. Think of Bloomberg now. There’s a long list.

In Europe, very few wealthy people are generous with their money. Very few give large sums of money to any nonprofit organization. As an innocent abroad, working as president of the Dow Jones International Publications Group from 1988 to 1996, I was shocked to discover how few wealthy Europeans donated any money at all to any organization beyond their own religious groups.

Today, one of the major problems of our volunteer society is getting enough volunteers, made worse by so many middle-class families having to work two and three jobs just to survive because their take-home pay has barely risen over the past 20 years. More and more nonprofit organizations are having trouble attracting the number of volunteers they need to continue operating. The problem of overworked parents who don’t have time to volunteer is hurting organizations like Little League baseball, volunteer fire companies and food pantries. They’re not getting the young people they need to train for the future.

In many small American communities, the busiest social center on a Friday or Saturday night is the volunteer fire company. As fewer and fewer young people follow their fathers as volunteer firemen, our fire companies are having a harder and harder time finding physically capable volunteers.

What do I volunteer for in my community? In New Paltz, my main volunteer organization is the Wallkill Valley Land Trust. I’ve been its treasurer since it began in 1987. It requires a lot of work for all ten board members and many other volunteers.

For many years, while I was flying around the world working to build European and Asian editions of the Wall Street Journal, my one emotional connection to the land of my hometown and to my friends in New Paltz was the Land Trust. It gave me a sense of having roots in the community where my wife Mary and I have lived since 1984.

Everyone who lives around New Paltz and the Hudson Valley knows that we enjoy a wonderful range of changing seasons and beautiful landscapes. I have always felt that I should make a contribution to preserving our landscapes by encouraging private landowners voluntarily to put limits on development of their land by donating easements to the Land Trust. We now have 33 easements, protecting about 3,000 acres of open space in eight towns of southeastern Ulster County. Our air and water are cleaner, and some great views of the Shawangunk Ridge are protected by the Land Trust.

We who live in this beautiful place are lucky to have so many big volunteer private organizations protecting it: the Mohonk Preserve, the Mohonk Mountain House, the Open Space Institute, Scenic Hudson, a dozen small and large CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture farms) and the Wallkill Valley Land Trust, to name a few. We live in a kind of paradise for volunteer environmentalists. And we need more.


Jim Ottaway, Jr. was born in Binghamton in 1938 and grew up in the family newspaper business. He was a reporter and photographer for the Middletown Times Herald-Record from 1962 to 1965. He worked in similar capacities for three other Ottaway newspapers before becoming president of the Ottaway News Group after the eight-paper chain was purchased in 1970 by Dow Jones & Company, publisher of The Wall Street Journal. He became a vice president of Dow Jones in 1986 and served in that capacity until he retired in 2003. He served as a director of Dow Jones & Company for 17 years, retiring from that board in 2006.

Since his retirement, Ottaway has served as a volunteer on several nonprofit organization boards, as treasurer of the Wallkill Valley Land Trust, trustee of Bard College, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Storm King Art Center and as a founding director of the board of Words without Borders, a free website that publishes the works of great modern writers from 125 countries translated into English. He edits book manuscripts for friends and helps them get published.

Ottaway is also regularly engaged in translating from the ancient Greek all 24 books of Homer’s Odyssey. He has translated 12 books and plans to finish the last book “when I celebrate my 90th birthday.”

He has lived in New Paltz since 1984 with his wife Mary, an accomplished photographer and painter, who volunteered as a director and secretary of the board of the Elting Memorial Library.

– Jeremiah Horrigan


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