Voluntarism is indeed a hallmark of the American spirit, as President Clinton and his predecessors intoned again and again at the Presidents' Summit for America's Future this week. Many of the nation's ills could be salved if more people took it upon themselves to beautify their communities, help those in need and otherwise provide service without thought of compensation.

This is particularly true when it comes to helping the nation's children, as the presidents eloquently stated on Monday.But if the spirit of voluntarism has gotten muddled or confused in recent years, Washington has none to blame but itself. Despite his continual efforts to promote it as one of his favorite government programs, Clinton's AmeriCorps is not voluntarism, and it should not be referred to as such. In fact, its very presence is hurting the movement.

AmeriCorps is a program in which college students are paid to perform community service. They are given a stipend and, at the end of a pre-determined tenure of service, a $4,725 voucher for college expenses.

Voluntarism is the opposite of paid employment, and it has nothing to do with government incentives. Rather, it springs from an inner desire to better one's community and to help one's fellow man. It stems from personal conviction and from the joy of seeing others benefit, not from the hope of any personal gain.

But AmeriCorps is more than just a misnamed program. It is a costly and miserable failure. An audit by the General Accounting Office found that it costs about $32,000 per volunteer to operate - almost twice as much as originally projected. Contrary to expectations, it has not generated much support from private contributions. About 83 percent of its funding comes from taxpayers. Worse, according to the Heritage Foundation, an independent accounting firm determined the program's books are in disarray and cannot account for $38 million in federal funds.

Still, Clinton has asked Congress to expand this program to a cost of $546.5 million next year, and he used AmeriCorps "volunteers" to help arrange service projects to coincide with the summit in Philadelphia.

At best, government's role in promoting voluntarism is tenuous. It certainly can benefit from an increase in civic involvement, and people ought to freely help their various local, state and federal governments whenever possible. But government should do little to promote such help other than offer encouragement. It cannot mandate, nor can it compensate voluntary service without destroying the concept.

The Presidents' Summit for America's Future deserves high marks for enthusiasm and for spreading an important message. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration needs a remedial course in putting the concept into action.