The Confusing Talk about "Service"

By Susan J. Ellis

During September, the United States saw a flurry of special events, legislative proposals, and media attention focused on the subject of “service.” It was brought to a head by an event in New York City on September 11-12, called ServiceNation, itself a project of a relatively new organization, Be the Change.  Both Barack Obama and John McCain accepted the invitation to speak at the conference and were interviewed for broadcast media about their “positions on service.”  Some of what was discussed is election “noise” with little staying power.  But read the policy document, Strategies for Becoming a Nation of Service, and you’ll find a range of legislative proposals.  You can also sign a “Declaration of Service” and could have participated in yet another one-day event:  the “Day of Action” held on September 27th.

What Are We Talking About? 

As so often happens in our field, labels are being used without much clarity.  The common denominator at the moment seems to be the word “service.”  It’s usually paired with an adjective, as in community service, public service, citizen service, or voluntary service – but the modifiers don’t help much.   The only common denominator is that the terms all speak of service given to the community, fellow citizens, or the general public good. 

The problem is that talking about “service” as a huge mass of effort hinders rather than helps both debate and action.  It’s left to the listener to consider the context and the speaker each time “service” is used.   The resulting confusion directly affects those of us most concerned with volunteering because it is genuinely hard to tell when someone is advocating for us or forgetting about us.

Here are some of the sources of confusion:

  • In an effort to validate all types of civic participation, proponents of “service” lump together everything from active duty military to running for public office to joining the Peace Corps to mentoring a child. In spirit and philosophy, all these actions are indeed related; in practice, however, they are very, very different.
  • Is the service unpaid?  While volunteering in the traditional sense of unremunerated service is still the norm, the proponents of government-funded, stipended forms of service are urging large increases in the number of participants in the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, VISTA, and other Federal full-time service programs.  In the past 20 years, these programs have morphed from their original living-allowance-only volunteer status into a low-paid jobs program.  Add up the money for expenses, health care and benefits, and end-of-service educational grants, and you’ve gone beyond a minimum wage.  If that’s what we want, fine.  But let’s be clear that this is no longer “Volunteers In Service to America.”  Don’t forget, too, that we have an All-Volunteer Army, which means voluntary (non-draft) but not unpaid.
  • Do we mean service to government (of, for and by the people) or simply paid for by government?  Contradictions abound.  For example, while local and state governments welcome all sorts of volunteer contributions (fire fighting, helping in schools and libraries, parks and recreation activities, and more), the Federal government actually forbids volunteers from working in its offices!  Specific Congressional approval was needed for the big exceptions:  National Park Service, Agricultural Extension Service, and a few others. Consider the irony that the Corporation for National and Community Service and the USA Freedom Corps, which urge volunteering for nonprofit organizations, are not allowed to recruit volunteers to work side by side with their own staff.

On the other hand, Obama, McCain, and ServiceNation all want citizens to get involved in government itself, especially in running for public office.  In the past year, a long list of legislators have endorsed the idea of a U.S. Public Service Academy, which would be modeled after the nation’s military academies; “a civilian West Point, a guiding beacon highlighting America’s need for the best and the brightest of its youth to work in the public sector.”   

  • Is the service voluntary?  Just think of the endless debates about whether or not student graduation requirements or court-ordered alternative sentencing are volunteering. Yet they are definitely service to the community.  If we ever return to a military draft, the Army will have to change its slogan, yet it will still talk about a citizen’s obligation to serve. Some are resurrecting the call for a universal national service program under which all young adults would be required to give a period of time to their country, choosing between the military and other service options (paid).
  • Are all forms of “service” equivalent?  (A question that increases in importance if the service is required.) Is giving several years of one’s life as a community organizer on a par with the same period of time spent as a mayor of a small town?  Is protesting unfair voter registration procedures as important as teaching someone to read?  Giving a tour at the museum? What about giving time to a church or other faith community?  Who is supposed to weigh all the factors and to what purpose?
  • Finally, all the verbiage from proponents of “service” speaks about serious, entrenched problems that need citizen attention.  Clearly we cannot improve schools, end hunger, or stop global warming without long-term effort.  Yet ServiceNation put time and money into…another single day of service!  What’s the point of one more isolated burst of energy, unconnected to the countless meaningful volunteer opportunities already available to those who want to make a real difference? 

We especially have to face this issue now because of the merger of Points of Light with Hands On Network.  Hands On is focused on local calendars of one-time service events as an alternative to more intensive forms of volunteering.  This is an inherent conflict of interest with what had been the Points of Light Foundation’s ostensible mission:  encouraging and supporting volunteering in alI its forms. 

All of the ways citizens can serve their country are important and deserve attention and support.  But if we are going to ask for public policy and tax money to address “service,” what do we mean?  And how does volunteering fit into the picture, since it involves a greater number of people, doing far more diverse things, than all of the other types of service combined?  Yet because we do not generally ask for public funds to support volunteering, the other types of service tend to get much more  attention.  If you want proof, consider the fact that, after three months of trying, the charitable driving deduction is still under debate and may end up “compromised” to only 27 cents a mile (see my July Hot Topic on this and the excellent legislative updates provided by the Pennsylvania Association for Nonprofit Organizations).

In truth, the September 27 Day of Action was not about impact on the community that day, but rather a strategy to gain backing for what ServiceNation calls “a new and transformational national service act.”   It wants to "place 1 million Americans per year by 2020 in full- and part-time stipended national service through a new Serve America Program."

What comes between stipended national service and an endless string of single days of service?

Who is speaking for sustained service that is not full-time, is truly voluntary, and is provided free of charge?   

What do we mean and what do we want?

Receive an update when the next "News and Tips" is posted!


Permission to Reprint