In the recognized tradition of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, President-elect Barack Obama has asked Americans to devote that day, Monday, Jan. 19, to volunteer service. Mr. Obama, Joe Biden, and their families will do volunteer work in the Washington, D.C. area, just one day before the two men are sworn in as President and Vice President.
I’m pleased that the President-elect’s call for volunteer service is part of a larger push to persuade more people to make a year-round commitment to volunteerism. The charitable spirit of Americans, as Alexis de Tocqueville once observed, is deeply linked to our democratic ideals and volunteerism is one of the purest expressions of our nation’s social, political, and cultural vitality. The things we do as volunteers help charities to extend their influence and meet their missions, provide services that otherwise might not be available, resolve problems of social importance, and make the world better.
Martin Luther King Jr. said nothing about animal protection, so far as I am aware, but he did say something about volunteerism and service in his “Drum Major Instinct” speech that moves me whenever I think of it: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” That’s one of the reasons that accounts of volunteerism in the animal protection sector are such a great source of hope and inspiration to me. And it’s one of the reasons I’m so proud that HSUS staff members are terrific volunteers for animals.
After all, ours is a movement largely built on the selfless service of countless individuals. The 12,000 or so animal organizations in the United States, most of them local animal shelters and rescue groups, receive less than 1 percent of total charitable dollars donated by Americans. To a great extent, we make up for this small proportional allocation through our volunteerism. In their “Change is Coming” materials, Obama and Biden sent the message that animal issues are an important part of public service, suggesting that community organizers support their local animal shelter "to give animals in your area a chance."
The charitable spirit that the 25-year-old de Tocqueville perceived in 1831 is something we can still see on any day in the humane movement. We see it in the unsung heroes who walk dogs or cuddle cats or clean cages at the local shelter. We see it in the business professional who contributes expertise as a board member. We see it in the citizen lobbyist who is tireless in pursuit of a legislative proposal, or volunteers for a candidate in an election. We see it in the foster network or rescue group coordinator or disaster responder volunteer. We see it in the clear-headed writer of letters to the editor or the organizer who pulls together a lecture in their community or holds a film showing. All play their part, and together, they sustain and strengthen the social safety net for animals. In fact, they embody it.
In the same spirit, and in concurrence with our incoming President’s plea, we at The HSUS would like to encourage all who care about animals to volunteer their time and energy on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday too, at a local humane society or animal sanctuary, with a rescue group, or in some other capacity, or take some action through humanesociety.org. If you are not currently doing so, and you can find the time, we also hope that you’ll consider making a steady volunteer commitment at an animal institution in your community. There are ways for you to become more engaged with the work of The HSUS, as well, and we need your help, too. Together, let’s make every day a day of service for animals.