The Ripon Forum

Volume 42, No. 2

April - May 2008 Issue

National Service for the 21st Century

By on November 23, 2015

Mobilizing New Generation of Volunteers

by DAVID EISNER

This May, the national celebration of AmeriCorps Week will kick off amid the majestic sandstone monoliths of Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver, a venue developed in part by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.

National service today has as little in common with those CCC boys who worked at Red Rocks as it does with the “Birkenstocks and camp songs” perception of national service 40 years ago. Instead, national service has increasingly evolved into a philosophy and business model that is focused, local, lean and smart.

5When President Bush issued his 2002 call to service, he also insisted that the Corporation for National and Community Service manage our programs – which include AmeriCorps, VISTA, NCCC, Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America – in a way that was more entrepreneurial, more responsive to local and state needs, more administratively efficient, more useful to small faith-based and community organizations and, most important, more supportive of the culture of community volunteering that has always made America great.

While AmeriCorps and national service today retain important strands of DNA from the service initiatives of Presidents Clinton, Bush ’41, Johnson, Kennedy and Roosevelt, these new, more conservative genes have become dominant. The result is a national service portfolio that is more effective as well as more deserving of bipartisan support.

Americans Stepping Forward: A Generation of Volunteers

This evolution of service and volunteering in America has been supported in recent years by an unprecedented climate in which volunteer rates hover near 30-year highs, with Baby Boomers volunteering at their highest rate in a generation and at the highest rate of any age group. College student volunteering is up 20 percent and – one of the most significant trends – teens today are twice as likely to volunteer as teens did in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

That positive climate is further bolstered by trends in academic work, research and policy development at the federal, state and local levels that increasingly locate citizen engagement near the center of effective solutions for the toughest social problems faced by our communities. These trends are driving an increasing focus on civic engagement by government agencies, foundations, corporations, and nonprofits that are on the front lines of wrestling with the high-school drop-out crisis, youth violence, prisoner reentry, disaster preparedness and other serious challenges to community success.

The Corporation has effectively capitalized on this once-in-a-generation opportunity to grow and sustain a significant upsurge in overall citizen engagement and has positioned our national service programs as supportive infrastructure for that sustained engagement. In 2006, the Corporation adopted a strategic plan that specified key strategic goals for our programs for the next five years: mobilizing more volunteers; ensuring a brighter future for America’s youth; engaging students in communities; and harnessing Baby Boomers’ experience. Last year we added a fifth strategic initiative – preparing for and responding to disasters.

National service today is far from the “paid volunteerism” conservatives used to call AmeriCorps as it was introduced by President Clinton in the ‘90s. Since volunteering is essential to meeting our country’s vital needs, we have successfully refocused our national service programs and AmeriCorps in particular on recruiting, training and managing community volunteers, in addition to providing direct service. AmeriCorps members are a powerful catalyst and force-multiplier for community volunteering in organizations where they serve, from nonprofit giants like Boys and Girls Clubs to small faith-based groups. Over 90 percent of sponsoring organizations say that AmeriCorps members helped them measurably increase the number of persons served by their programs.

Hurricane Katrina, which was a defining moment for national service, is a case in point. When disaster hit we were able to respond immediately because we had an existing, organized infrastructure and a cadre of trained AmeriCorps members in place that allowed us to mobilize and effectively manage thousands of Americans who came to serve. Working in cooperation with the Red Cross, FEMA, and local and state authorities, more than 93,000 national service volunteers contributed more than 3.5 million hours to the relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts, and helped coordinate the work of an additional 260,000 community volunteers. AmeriCorps members in the Gulf region continue to support waves of volunteers in the effort to rebuild and revitalize the area.

Reinforcing Local Efforts

This principle of leverage – using national service participants to support the infrastructure that allows greater engagement and impact by community volunteers – also drives thousands of initiatives across the rest of the country.

An AmirCorps member inside a house damaged by Hurricane Katrine in Louisiana

An AmirCorps member inside a house damaged by Hurricane Katrine in Louisiana

Community volunteering efforts, which are rightly responsive to local needs, often can’t be sustained beyond initial bursts of enthusiasm because they are subject to dramatic swings in interest, leadership and resources. The single resource that nonprofit, faith-based and community organizations report they need, even more than money, to make their volunteer-driven activities more effective, valuable and scalable, is longer-term, intense engagement by mission-oriented people who can coordinate and motivate their volunteers.

 

National service today is far from the “paid volunteerism” conservatives used to call AmeriCorps..

America is on a path to answering that expressed need through AmeriCorps, VISTA, NCCC and Senior Corps participants. If we really want to empower community volunteers to make an impact on our country’s toughest problems, we can use our national service programs to provide strong and consistent scaffolding from which they can build. This year, 2 million Americans will serve through Corporation programs – 75,000 AmeriCorps members, nearly 500,000 Senior Corps members, and more than a million students who will engage in service-learning activities through Learn and Serve America. They will recruit, coordinate and support another 2 million volunteers who will serve alongside them in communities. These figures reveal the broad impact in human capital alone that national service programs today are having in communities across America in a way that is in sharp contrast to national service models of the past.

Being Efficient and Accountable to Taxpayers

As we have made our national service programs more efficient, effective, and accountable, the Corporation itself has become a fundamentally different organization than it was even four years ago. We have dramatically improved our management and operations, increased cost-effectiveness, and created an organizational culture that promotes performance and accountability. By every indicator we have been successful – from one of the cleanest audits in the federal government to surveys that show high marks for customer service.

In addition to being focused, local and lean, national service today is smart. In the same way that the Administration has partnered with faith-based and nonprofit organizations through the Compassion Capital Fund, we have partnered with these organizations to expand their volunteer management capacity to help make an even greater impact on key social issues: mentoring children of prisoners, supporting prisoner reentry and meeting needs of young people aging out of foster care. National service today is research and results-based and encourages innovation for our programs, for our grantees, and for the volunteer community as a whole. We run national service programs at a manageable, sustainable level so that we can get it right. We owe it to the taxpayers, to the organizations we serve, and to our members themselves to make national service a model of effective volunteer management and opportunity.

We owe it to the taxpayers ..  to make national service a model of effective volunteer management and opportunity.

In the near future, we are likely to see national service and volunteering become more integrated into the solutions to our nation’s challenges, as it has moved from controversy to consensus on Capitol Hill, and as all three major presidential candidates have made national service part of their campaigns. The changes we have made have prepared the Corporation for that next step of growing effective national service to serve America throughout the 21st century.

With this transformation in national service since 2001, we are more ready than ever to make the words of William F. Buckley, Jr. come true: “National service, like gravity, is something we could accustom ourselves to, and grow to love.”

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David Eisner is the Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

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