Is the Corporation for National and Community Service on the Right Track for Volunteerism?

By Paula J. Beugen

Introduction from Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

I am working in New Zealand and Australia for three weeks and was therefore especially delighted when colleague and friend Paula Beugen approached us with this very timely and thought-provoking topic. In May of 2009, she guest wrote the Hot Topic discussing what the 2009 Serve America Act would mean to volunteer resources managers. After 2 years, Paula is well-positioned to share her concerns below as she has devoted much effort to following the Serve America Act and understanding how public policy affects frontline volunteer resources management best practices and volunteering in the United States. Thank you, Paula, for contributing this month’s Hot Topic!

After energetically working alongside many others to advance the concepts for what became the National and Community Service Act of 1990, I am stunned by the current state of what is now the Corporation for National and Community Service (the Corporation) and a number of its programs. In sharp contrast to the excitement that I felt when the Act of 1990 first got the ball rolling to create the Corporation and its programs, I now find myself greatly concerned with the Corporation’s lack of impact on volunteer infrastructure and volunteering. Today, the Corporation is struggling for survival – but does it need a serious makeover no matter what funding level Congress approves for it?

Dramatic Budget Cuts and Uncertainty

The Corporation’s budget situation is no doubt worrisome. In February 2011, the Corporation released its strategic plan for 2011 through 2015. Within a very short period, its fiscal year 2011 (FY11) budget (which ends September 30, 2011) was slashed by Congress and the allocation of FY12 federal funds are presently in serious question. Reports are that the Corporation’s CEO, Patrick Corvington resigned unexpectedly to take another position. Yet, even before the current economic crisis, the Corporation was making decisions that ought to concern those of us in the wider volunteer community.

Despite what was originally authorized by Congress in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009 (Serve America Act), key Corporation programs have received only minimal funding. The most dramatic budget cuts for FY11 were Learn and Serve America, which was entirely eliminated from the Corporation’s budget, and the RSVP program, a Senior Corps Program that is part of the Domestic Volunteer Service Act. RSVP received roughly a 20 percent cut plus an additional 0.2 percent budget reduction that was received by all federal non-defense programs for FY11.

The Nonprofit Capacity Building Program and the Volunteer Generation Fund received very small funding amounts through the Corporation – $5 million for FY10 combined, compared to the $55 million combined that was authorized through the Serve America Act for these two programs. The Corporation’s overall budget was more than one billion dollars that year.

The Corporation’s strategic plan indicates, “In 2010, we enabled grantees, sponsors and projects to leverage $800 million in funds and in-kind donations.”
In contrast, many volunteer programs throughout America experienced serious challenges in obtaining corporate, foundation, and government grants for volunteerism infrastructure (including local internal-organization volunteer resources management).

A Different Approach to Supporting Volunteering Is Needed

Since passage of the Serve America Act in 2009, the Corporation has increased the number of AmeriCorps members from 75,000 in FY09 to 81,000 members for FY10. The Serve America Act slated AmeriCorps for continued increases with the goal of reaching 250,000 members for 2017 (a laudable but unlikely-to-be-achieved goal in the current economic environment).

In the past few years, increasing emphasis has been placed on deploying AmeriCorps members as “mobilizers of community volunteers.” According to the Corporation’s 2010 Volunteering in America report, “In 2009, 63.4 million Americans volunteered to help their communities.”  The Corporation reports in its strategic plan, “…in FY 2010, over 81,000 AmeriCorps members served in communities across the nation and mobilized an estimated 2.8 million additional volunteers – roughly 35 leveraged volunteers per AmeriCorps member.” (The number of leveraged volunteers by all Corporation program participants was 3.5 million.) Note, therefore, that Corporation leveraged volunteers through AmeriCorps comprise less than five percent of the volunteers in America who are “adults ages 16 years and older who performed unpaid volunteer activities for or through an organization” (the 2010 Volunteering in America definition).

I have observed a dearth of positions for professional managers of volunteer programs in recent years at the same time the Corporation has been promoting and placing AmeriCorps members as volunteer coordinators. There is an important role for AmeriCorps volunteer coordinators to augment the work of volunteer resources managers within organizations but not to take their place.

Little has been done to educate policymakers that there is more to volunteer resources management than “coordinating” volunteers. This works great in the short run, but the long-term sustainability of results-driven volunteer programs requires substantive investment in volunteer resources management infrastructure.

The similar concept of AmeriCorps members serving as service-learning coordinators in schools could lead to the same consequences: supplanting seasoned service-learning specialists thus losing continuity as well as highly effective service-learning program implementation.

AmeriCorps members can be of enormous help to volunteer-involving organizations, but they cannot substitute for experienced volunteer resources leaders with ongoing commitment to best practices in the volunteer resources management profession.

Contradictions between Gathered Data and Volunteer Community Composition

It is further notable that, volunteer statistics in the Corporation’s Volunteering in America report do not include informal volunteering, such as neighbor-to-neighbor-type volunteering. Therefore, the number of volunteers in America is much greater than 63.4 million. Not to mention the service-learning students who fall below the cut-off age of 16 years old are not included in the data.

According to its strategic plan, the Corporation is focusing on results-driven, evidence-based service in the areas of disaster services, economic opportunity, education, environmental stewardship, healthy futures and veterans and military families. Focus on these key areas can help our country become stronger and more successful as substantive progress is made.

In reality, the emphasis of the Corporation’s work is primarily centered on the achievements and contributions of the Corporation’s stipended programs, with little support to the remainder of the 63.4 million volunteers who are the majority in service. I believe that the Senior Corps Programs, Foster Grandparents and Senior Companion, are the most cost-effective Corps programs when considering their current very small stipends for program participants. RSVP, also a part of the SeniorCorps, is a volunteer program without a stipend.

It is not hard to see that the demand for volunteer positions by people in their "encore” years (as Marc Freedman describes baby boomers in his latest book, The Big Shift, and a term also used in the Serve America Act in regard to Encore Fellowships) is likely to outstrip the capacity of volunteer programs to absorb them unless infrastructure resources are greatly increased. Reductions in funding for the Corporation’s RSVP program exacerbate the inadequacy of infrastructure for this population of volunteers. All of this together furthers the lopsided picture of federal support for the infrastructure for volunteerism and volunteering.

Given the limitations of the Corporation’s resources, its reach will be valuable but finite. All of the work of the Corporation alone will not get us the widespread work that needs to be accomplished even in the above described areas. And, volunteers are the “safety net of the safety net.”

More Balance Desperately Needed

The Corporation is a valuable federal agency and leaders outside of government can learn from its work. But – despite its rhetoric about stimulating service and volunteering in the United States – the Corporation’s scope is now more limited. It is not a wide-open nationwide support and infrastructure-building organization for volunteerism and volunteering. Such a system is sadly missing, yet is a critical piece of the volunteerism success puzzle for our nation.

What will happen to the vast majority of the volunteer community if we as field do not find a way to broadly develop and grow it – especially with an eye toward sustained and meaningful service and measurable results? Erosion of the field may not be seen in the number of volunteers, but rather in depth and continuity of service – what volunteers are accomplishing overall for the long-term, including getting beyond alleviating the symptoms of community problems to address the root causes of those symptoms.

Further, if critical infrastructure for service-learning is dismantled as a result of the FY11 elimination of Learn and Serve America, that infrastructure will need to be rebuilt and a way found to redesign it. The passion and accomplishments of a system that mobilized more than one million young people in FY10, and that linked service and learning to academic achievement must not be lost. Many young people will not have the opportunity to be inspired to learn, serve and lead into the future without it.

Let’s not let what happened to the infrastructure for volunteer resources management happen to Learn and Serve America.

What to Do?

Is it our challenge and opportunity to take action to be sure volunteering and the infrastructure for it are integrated into the Corporation? Or, should we instead work towards a parallel system, adequately supported, to strengthen the nation’s capacity for sustained, results-driven, evidence-based volunteering?

For those who prefer the Corporation to take the lead role, we must clearly advocate for more balance in both appropriations and actual allocation of Corporation dollars to assure an effective infrastructure for volunteerism. If a way can be found to restore it through the Corporation, Learn and Serve America must be restored at least to its former “full funding” level. Simply slowing the increase in AmeriCorps participants for FY10 could have spared the loss of the entire Learn and Serve America program.

My opinion is that the second option is in the best interests of a vibrant volunteer community. Based on the changes at the Corporation and how it has been prioritizing its dollars (where it had discretion to do so), it is clear that the Corporation has not been headed in the direction of providing substantive leadership and support for non-Corporation programs and volunteers.

To be successful, a true cross-section of the volunteer, service-learning, and national service community must be included in leadership roles for the needed change, paired up with persuasive public and private sector partners. Local level, grass roots experts and engaged citizens in these areas must be an integral part of the decision-making process and part of the decision-making group. Together we can find a solution to this serious challenge.

  • What is your vision for the future of the Corporation, and for volunteerism and service-learning infrastructure?
  • What steps should our collective field take given current circumstances?
  • Does the Corporation need a serious makeover?
  • Do we all need to get busy developing a parallel and widespread infrastructure for volunteerism and volunteering?
  • Is there another not-yet-identified option?

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