Turbulence at the State Level

By Susan J. Ellis

When the Corporation for National and Community Service mandated that, in order to receive federal dollars, each State would have to form a "Commission on Community Service" to administer the funds, some states immediately connected this new Commission to their existing State Office on Volunteerism. Others didn’t see the connection and evolved separate entities. But recently, several states have taken steps to merge their Commissions on Community Service with previously-established State Offices on Volunteerism.

Is this a trend? And does it matter to those of us in volunteer administration? I say yes and yes.

Before I espouse my concerns, any of you that aren't familiar with the history of these two groups might want to read my brief history of the emergence of state offices and commissions.  The history might surprise you.

All right, here are the concerns as I see them:

1.  The mergers seem driven by a desire to streamline government and save money--certainly not by a vision of volunteerism.   When the two structures are merged,  full-time service programs dominate because they are connected to a visible funding stream.  But AmeriCorps and VISTA are the tail wagging the dog. It’s not that these programs aren’t worthwhile, it’s just that numerically they deal with such low numbers of participants.  I'd like to see the most time and attention paid to the width and breadth of everyday volunteer action across a state,   rather than focusing efforts on just a few stipended workers.

2. In every case in which the work of a Commission and a State Office has been combined, support and services for the volunteer community becomes very low priority, often without a designated staff person. So, in essence, the State Office disappears but the governor/legislators don’t have to take any heat.

3.  Experience also shows that AmeriCorps and VISTA overshadow not only general volunteer-related issues but also the Corporation’s other components, particularly the various "Elder Corps" programs and the Learn and Serve/K-12 programs, which are most interconnected with the wider volunteer community.    Without fitting into a guiding vision of state volunteerism,  Commission staff tend to allow the Department of Education to oversee Learn and Serve projects as their professional specialty, while the Department of Aging deals with Elder Corps.   So, in practice, the state Commission funnels federal money but then takes a hands-off stance.  So another opportunity is lost to fit these programs into the bigger volunteer picture.

By the way--I  am not necessarily against these mergers and believe that we can make the situation work to our benefit in the long run, but only if we recognize what the factors are, and can articulate what it is we WANT at a state level.

Now it's your turn.... Maybe you want to cogitate on what you think is needed on the state level for the entire service field.

(Apologies to our non-U.S. readers for a topic so American in focus. But maybe you’d like to share what’s going on politically at the provincial or national level in your country. )

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