October 2008

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?

Responses from Readers

Submitted on 24 December 2008 by Paula Beugen, Minnesota

I wrote an article for the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) about the service-related policy proposals that were released after the ServiceNation event :  "Do It! Study and Weigh-in on Timely Service-Related Policy Proposals."   [Paula raises important questions about the proposed Serve America Act now in Congress, particularly from the perspective of volunteer management.]

Submitted on 28 October 2008 by Gerald Pannozzo, NYMH and KJMC, Program/Training Coordinator, Grant Coordinator/Consultant. New York United States
Thanks for highlighting this topic.  At a local meeting a colleague shared The NonProfit Times article, "McCain, Obama To Make Joint Appearance For Volunteerism" (August 25, 2008).  My fellow practitioners asked, “Would anyone be representing volunteer resources managers?”  I decided I must watch the T.V. coverage.

I wasn’t familiar with ServiceNation or Be the Change.  Thanks for the links – very informative.  The following quotes are from ServiceNation – followed by my comments.

  •    “We envision enhanced opportunities for citizens to make careers in the public and nonprofit sectors as well as expanded pro bono opportunities for private sector employees to share their special and technical skills and expertise.”  

Have they thought about the career track for the volunteer resources manager in the nonprofit sector?   If yes, were representatives of the profession invited to the conference and how will information be shared?

  • Engage 100 million Americans in community volunteering by building the capacity of nonprofit, faith-based, and civic organizations to recruit, train, and utilize volunteers. And by founding a new Serve America Campaign to inspire more Americans to lead through service.”

     Yes, they have listed some of our traditional job responsibilities – leadership, recruitment and training.  Other responsibilities are not included. Who will manage the volunteer resources (100 million community volunteers)? This reminds me of a couple of years ago when the model/solution kicked around was that AmeriCorps members (one year commitment) could cover the volunteer director/manager/coordinator responsibilities.

Speaking of AmeriCorps, I’ve been involved with both successful and not so successful partnering with AmeriCorps members.  Which leads me to raise the question -- will these new national initiatives (stipends or not) produce similar assessment processes.  AmeriCorps and other models are almost always promoted as “successful”? Will "lessons learned” be incorporated in the new model or will it be more of the same?

ServiceNation makes reference to the ROTC.  We often think of service/volunteerism as being free of prejudice; however, the United States still makes a group of citizens second-class with the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.  Therefore, such an option for citizen engagement/volunteering is an opportunity for some American, not “all” Americans.  Ethics is always involved when discussing engaging volunteers.

With regard to one-day of service activities, I’ve seen successful and unsuccessful implementation of such events.  The downside that I hope the new venture addresses is that nonprofits can invest large amount of limited resources to support such events when in fact those resources could be better invested in clients, services, etc.  For some organizations one-day events are of value and others they are not.  “One size” doesn’t “fit all.” I hope the self-identified decisions makers take this into consideration.

I agree with your statement, “Yet because we do not generally ask for public funds to support volunteering, the other types of service tend to get much more attention.”  When you get government funding it isn’t necessarily “unrestricted funding”.  Therefore, with that “choice” we may need to become more creative.  Which segues nicely to your statement “…advocating for us or forgetting about us.”  I’m going to be optimistic about the future.  I’m hoping the next generation of national professional associations (two currently in their developmental stages) will proactively include advocating for the profession and  “get a seat at the table” when national issues are discussed.

Submitted on 21 October 2008 by Sarah (Sam) Elliston, New Thought Unity Center,
Volunteer Involvement Coordinator, Cincinnati, OH USA

As always Susan, you are asking the tough questions and I find enlightening the responses from the many Hands On affiliates. So, if the new service legislation is designed to stimulate in-depth volunteering, my question is, where is the  investment of training in volunteer administrators?  POLF (now POLI) has eliminated the position of Andy King, who had his hand on the pulse of training for volunteer administrators at the national level.  It doesn't feel like a significant investment in sustained volunteering to me.

Submitted on 14 October 2008 by Amy Smith, President, HandsOn Network
Susan, there is a great appreciation for the work of Energize, Inc. and the challenging issues posed to the field through your writing.  We need to continue to push forward and make the sector as strong as it can be.  You will get no disagreement that hard questions and thought-provoking dialogue is an important part of that equation.  However, in your latest article “Confusing Talk about Service” there are some specific factual inaccuracies that I believe do the work of the sector and especially of the newly formed HandsOn Network a great disservice.

Factual error #1:  Let’s just start with the basics; "there is an inherent conflict of interest with what had been the Points of Light Foundation’s ostensible mission:  encouraging and supporting volunteering in ALL its forms".   The Points Of Light Foundation merged with Hands On Network in August 2007 and is now the Points Of Light Institute.  POLI houses three business units including HandsOn Network.  The vision of POLI is that “one day every person will discover their power to make a difference, creating healthy communities in vibrant democracies around the world”.  The mission of HandsOn Network, the leading business unit and activation arm within Points Of Light Institute is to “inspire, equip and mobilize people to take action that changes the world”.  There is no conflict of interest here.  We all share the goal and desire to engage more people in a meaningful way in the work of our communities – all people, all forms of civic and volunteer engagement.

Factual error #2: "Hands On is focused on local calendars of one-time service events as an alternative to more intensive forms of volunteering".  The former Hands On Network Affiliates that have been running intensive tutoring programs with the same volunteers for 18 years or running board training programs or long-term skill-based volunteer programs would take issue with this historical representation of their work. The one-time service events have always been one dimension of the broader Hands On programming.

From a picture of our current work and commitments, this could not be more incorrect.  As the 300+ network of affiliates have come together over the last year we have redefined HandsOn.  A hard working group of affiliates with the support of national staff spent nearly 12 months analyzing the benefits and requirements of each legacy organization, considering the changing needs of the volunteer and of our non-profit, corporate & government partners, evaluating the support structure and integrating months and months of feedback from their peers.  In the end a membership structure emerged that supported a continuum of service and engagement opportunities including on-going opportunities, year long engagements and yes calendared service events.  It also recognizes and encourages our affiliate’s expertise in training, recognition, outreach and innovative engagement and educational programming.  HandsOn Network is not, and honestly never has been exclusively focused on “one-time service events”.

Factual error #3:  "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.”"  Yes, the ServiceNation event does call for placing 1 million Americans per year by 2020 in full- and part-time stipended national service through a new Serve America Program.  However, it also calls for a 100 million dollar volunteer generation fund to support community volunteerism. This would represent an unprecedented investment in our nation’s volunteer infrastructure and one that represents real change. The ServiceNation effort provides the hope and possibility of a stronger than ever national infrastructure for community volunteering and an unprecedented coming together of service and volunteerism.

Susan, please keep pushing the sector, please keep encouraging the hard conversations but I hope that you will re-examine your preconceptions of the historical facts about the merger of Points of Light and Hands On Network and also keep an open mind about the changes that are taking place in the sector – including the merger and ServiceNation.

Posted on 6 October 2008 by Alison Carl White, Seattle Works, Executive Director,
Seattle WA USA

In a time when the sector needs to come together and mobilize for ALL types of service, does it really matter what we call it or how it gets done if more people feel connected and engaged in their community? Just as Congress had to hold their nose and vote for bailout to infuse confidence in our economy, we who want long term community change may have to accept that the movement requires more than one way to engage in the community. I am inspired to see such diverse groups come together around a single vision—more people doing more things to make our country stronger

As a legacy Hands On affiliate who has always focused on engaging people in their 20s and 30s, we’ve found that one time volunteer activities (for example, Hot Projects and Seattle Works Day) lead to monthly volunteer activities (like Team Works), which leads to longer term volunteer activities, men’s mentoring and board service, not to mention an increase in community knowledge and philanthropy. I reject your premise that there is a conflict between HON’s one day volunteering and POLF’s mission to encourage and support volunteering in alI its forms.  The merger of the two organizations provides the best chance to leverage innovative volunteer practices with a deep appreciation for building nonprofit capacity to engage more people in community volunteering.

A deeper look at the legislation shows the largest federal investment in volunteer infrastructure that we’ve ever seen.

Susan responds to the earlier post (October 3):

Thank you for your response, Judith.  But it is possible for people to be educated on a subject and still disagree (maybe the presidential election is setting a bad example for us).  I assure you that I have closely examined all the materials produced in the past year by HON/POLI — at least those available to the public — and have actually had many hours of conversation with people directly involved at national, state and local levels.  Of course I hope that your vision is indeed achieved.  At the moment, though, there is a disconnect between action and rhetoric, so the jury is still out.

Posted on 3 October 2008 by Dr. Judith A. M. Smith, HandsOn Jacksonville, Inc. (formerly Volunteer Jacksonville, Inc.), President & CEO, Jacksonville, FL USA
I read your October 2008 posting, The Confusing Talk about “Service,” with interest.  I do agree that there is a long-standing need to find clarity around these age-old questions of definition.  However, as CEO of HandsOn Jacksonville, formerly Volunteer Jacksonville, I am on the frontline of the volunteering and service movement where boots meet the ground and where the needs are seen up close and personal.  As such, I take exception to one of your paragraphs regarding the aftermath of the merger of Points of Light with HandsOn Network, and I would like to offer you and your readers my comments.

You said, "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."

I fear you may be missing a fundamental understanding of what is happening in the post-merger network of field organizations.  While some field units who were affiliated with the two former organizations may want to cling to their old organizational models and ways of doing business, the successful field organization of the merged parent organization will become an evolved, hybridized model, taking the best of both the old Volunteer Center model and the old Hands On Action Center model.  The successful new organization will be a knowledge leader, convener, capacity builder, advocate, and connector of people and community needs; however, it will also be a portal for directly engaging people, creating and managing activities that transform them into agents of change.  This evolution will happen intentionally, not through inertia—through selectively abandoning some of the old and judiciously doing things that are new and different.

To create a culture of conscious volunteering in our country and our world is a mammoth undertaking, but it is a process that begins with, and it is accomplished through, people—one heart at a time.  Episodic projects are not, as you imply, the sole focus of the evolved HandsOn Network.  However, episodic projects can be a valid gateway to service, a spawning ground for new volunteers, a training ground for volunteer leaders, impactful in their own right; and these episodic projects can easily turn into recurring projects, the outcomes of which can be not only impactful, but also intensive and fulfilling.

Susan, I absolutely reject your assertion that there is an “inherent conflict of interest” with the mission of the former Points of Light organization.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  But times have changed and the evolved organization has changed; like the field units, it is not a cobbled-together quilt, patching together the old and the new and hoping for the best.  It is a new creation, and it would be my suggestion that you take the time to learn and understand what in happening at national office and across the field.  I have always considered you a competent voice in our sector.  I hope to continue that confidence.

Posted on 3 October 2008 by Lori Tsuruda, People Making a Difference (PMD), Founder & Executive Director, Boston, MA USA
Another disturbing part of the too broad ServiceNation, from my interactions with some of the organizers, is the implication is that if you don't support it, then you must be against national service, when it can simply be outside one's charitable mission. If I am going to use some of my limited time on advocacy, national service is just not an organizational priority.

For nearly 16 years, my charity has provided organized and well-managed, one-time volunteer opportunities for busy people who want to help for 3-7 hours a few times a year, yet I felt pressured and criticized for not joining the ServiceNation effort, which was not planned very far in advance compared to what my charity does daily as part of its core service program.

Posted on 2 October 2008 by H Roberts, PLNJ Inc., President, Keyport/NJ USA
As a statewide Coordinator of youth service programs under the nonprofit agency I lead, I have the pleasure of interacting with a high volume of educators, school-based service learning centers, local and state youth leaders, faith based leadership, college based day of service advisors, social service agencies, recipients of volunteer and in kind support, parents new to service learning and of course the youth volunteers themselves.

In the area of service learning, those arriving to our agency door to discuss service opportunities and volunteer projects; often mandatory by school, faith or college preparation always with the same questions:

  • What is service learning?
  • Who teaches service learning?
  • Who monitors service learning?
  • Who benefits from service learning?

The educators and advisors we see are often the most in need of basic tutorials.  Years ago, while developing our own service learning model, we suspected that the trainer tutorial was going to be our most requested packet.  It was.

It has been our experience that young people learn about service opportunities from TV, visiting the library, on the Internet, working part time, attending day camp, while practicing formal religion and from their local community.  Young people jump in with both feet and learn approaches to service by participation.  We call it fearless volunteering.

Adults, specifically educators and youth advisors, seek formal instruction.  Eager for "professional" tools to coordinate an activity; be it one day or one year, those of us working in non profit know where to go for guideposts but many working in education do not.  My colleagues and I, providing service learning projects annually, see this as a big hole in the national service model.  Educators need continuing education in this area to be effective and welcome training to bring impactful and varied service models into their classrooms and activity centers.  Until educators are fully included in the model of national service, only a fraction will understand how to define their role.

How do we expand key service learning models to include national educators?

Posted on 2 October 2008 by Susan

In response to the following e-mail, I have amended the original Hot Topic that was on the site for one day.  In the original, I inaccurately said that ServiceNation was a proponent of mandatory national service. It is not and I apologize for misleading early readers.  Here is the main text of the e-mail from Ethan Gray, Director of Education Policy, Be the Change, Inc.:

You ask many important and interesting questions about the distinctions between service and volunteerism, and you rightfully call for greater clarity of the meaning of such terms - especially relative to their contexts.

However, you repeat a factual inaccuracy several times about ServiceNation - an effort of which I am a part through my work with Be the Change, Inc.  - and I am writing to you today to ask that you retract and amend the following point for your readers: ServiceNation does not support mandatory national service requirements.  We support the expansion of service and volunteerism opportunities.  Our policy document - Strategies for Becoming a Nation of Service - has many proposals which would lead to a stronger and more vibrant service sector (recognizing, as you do, that service and volunteerism have myriad, though equally important, meanings and roles in our society), though we never call for a universal, mandatory system. Please see our website - specifically our FAQ's where we clearly state this point (http://www.bethechangeinc.org/servicenation/media/media_kit#natserv).

Again, we do not support any type of mandatory service requirements and instead support efforts to increase voluntary opportunities for citizens of all ages to be able to serve (full or part-time, stipended or unstipended) or volunteer in their communities and for their nation at home or abroad.

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