June 2011

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

By Paula J. Beugen
Subscribe: |

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?
Responses from Readers

Responses from Readers:
Is the Corporation for National and Community Service on the Right Track for Volunteerism?

Submitted on 19 June 2011 by H Roberts, President/Founder, PLNJ-Blankie Depot, Keyport/NJ, USA

The wrong employees are championing the cause for Volunteer Resource Management. The six-figure ED or highly paid Director of Development, the Board of Trustees who (hopefully) bring resources, local partnerships and funding to the roundtable should be speaking louder and prouder on behalf of the time and talents VRM’s offer to each and every npo that benefits from a supervised and well orchestrated internal volunteer network.

Elevate the voice of authority! The impact of local level contributions in both funding and manpower is missing and, for goodness sake keep the business of politics out of the discussion.

Instead, we see the VRM employee, with little to no authority, left to fend for themselves. Prove your worth! Decade after re-invention decade how can any of us still expect a different result when we continue to settle for the same mistakes. It’s all about authority in order to be a) heard and b) implement change. Be part of the solution? How exactly when your voice is silenced! Has the national office ever asked VRM’s for our recommended solutions?

Submitted on15 June 2011 by Alisa Kesten, Executive Director, Volunteer Center of the United Way of Westchester, NY

As Executive Director of the Westchester Volunteer Center, I just came back from the National Conference on Volunteering and Service…I have to say that the number of AmeriCorps alum who are now leaders and professional paid staff of nonprofits all over the country made it clear to me (a non AmeriCorps alum) that this service program has created a legacy of leadership that our nation can't afford to lose.

Submitted on 08 June 2011 by Manager, Volunteer Services, Northeast Ohio, USA

Q: What is your vision for the future of the Corporation, and for volunteerism and service-learning infrastructure?

A: I don’t see that there is a legitimate need or mandate for The Corporation for National and Community Service and it should be disbanded. Volunteerism is a “local” and individual venture and is best served on that level. Some national based programs can be handled by other entities and the balance is not necessary.

Q: What steps should our collective field take given current circumstances?

A: Approach volunteerism with a business model and not with a social service model.

Q: Does the Corporation need a serious makeover?

A: It should be disbanded.

Q: Do we all need to get busy developing a parallel and widespread infrastructure for volunteerism and volunteering?

A: No, I think we waste resources in creating larger infrastructure and programs than we need in order to increase the perception of worth of our profession.

Q: Is there another not-yet-identified option?

A: Create volunteer opportunities that meet needs people are passionate about and provide great volunteer experiences that produce results. Volunteerism is no different than any other business. If you meet a need and deliver a great service you will receive the resources. If the resources for the program aren’t there then it isn’t a need for it, people aren’t passionate about it or you didn’t have what it takes to make it happen.

Submitted on 03 June 2011 by Dana Toth, Manager, Volunteer Services, Odyssey Hospice of Charleston, Charleston, SC, US

I agree with many issues raised by this author. I am the President of the SC Association for Volunteer Administration (SCAVA) and this article has helped solidify my thoughts that SCAVA is headed in the right direction in the area of Volunteer Administration support.

In 2010, our Board recognized the need to increase our capacity for organization growth, and we developed a full-time position to hire a person dedicated to strenthening statewide SCAVA affiliates, providing valuable resources and training opportunities for managers of volunteers across the state, and increasing awareness of our organization.

Members of our Board developed a job description and partnered with the United Way of SC to establish a SC Director of Volunteer position. Through a grant applied for through the United Way as a partner with the Corporation, a full-time Director of Volunteers was hired in the Fall of 2010. This person is now a full-time employee of the United Way and part of their responsibilities include increasing SCAVA's presence through the development of new affiliates and the strenthening of existing ones. The Director travels the state to educate and connect with Volunteer Administrators, which in turn, strengthens volunteerism in SC. The United Way had a goal to increase volunteerism and they recognized that SCAVA already had a strong and effective plan in place to make this happen. Therefore, rather than re-create this action, they developed a position to help support it.

We are all aware that Board Members are volunteers passionate about a cause. However, our time and jobs limit our ability to act on our passion and meet the needs of an entire state. However, to have a paid person to help us coordinate trainings, provide resources, have flexibility to travel, and be responsible for helping us grow, is a resource that has un-deniably helped us expand our reach in the area of volunteerism throughout SC.

Partnering with the UWASC has proven to be an effective and smart partnership. In the first quarter of 2011, SCAVA membership has doubled. We are also in the process of starting a new affiliate and expect to have one of our best Annual Conferences in January.

I believe the author is correct in saying that the Corporation needs to find a way to help strengthen existing volunteer programs through the Volunteer Administrator position, not simply placing substitutes in this role. I believe that anyone can volunteer, but for that volunteering to be effective, a leader must be in place.

Submitted on 02 June 2011 by a RSVP Project Director, NY, USA

The problem with The Corporation for National and Community Service is that it's a federal agency that has become bloated in its own infastructure over the past 20 years and has a strong disconnect with the projects that it oversees. These projects are doing fantastic volunteer management on a shoestring budget. Only a not-for-profit like an RSVP project, would know how to operate a senior volunteer program with 900 adults over 55, helping over 120 other organizations annually on a grant of about 125k! CNCS would do well if it is to survive the elimination of this agency altogether to streamline its operations in Washington and begin to listen to the pro-active RSVP projects on a local level, learn more about the needs of the communities that RSVP projects meet and know what beneficial impact looks like "in the real lane" instead of what looks good on paper.

Submitted on 02 June 2011 by Jason Frenzel, Stewardship Coordinator, Huron River Watershed Council, Ann Arbor MI, USA

I enjoy the author bringing up the issue that we often are working on symptoms and not root causes. I see our culture all too often pointing at and addressing symptoms, while rarely discussing the underlying, often systemic, causes.

As professionals, I believe we have the responsibility to understand the regional and global context we are working within. Being able to articulate how our work interplays with the larger whole is one of many critical roles we must play.

Many AmeriCorps workers (as a former AmeriCorps worker myself) often don't have the wisdom nor scope of work which allows them to articulate this greater vision.

I do believe the AmeriCorps programs have made amazing improvements in our country, and have invited many young people into the professions which serve our people. I believe the coming decades will benefit greatly from the ethic of service that so many have gained from the AmeriCorps program.

Submitted on 02 June 2011 by Susan Armstrong, Program Manager, Green Mountain RSVP, Bennington, VT, USA

I've been a program manager (volunteer coordinator) at RSVP for almost 6 years. It's a job about forming relationships, not only with the volunteers, but also with the staff at the non-profits where we send the volunteers. Besides recruiting, collecting hours, and creating new programs, I do a lot of writing about what we do so that the community is aware of the contributions that seniors are making. It is unfathomable to me that a part-time person (AmeriCorps member)who works for only a year or two could possibly give what is necessary to do this job well. RSVP has been an extremely successful program. Why "fix it if it ain't broke?" as we say in Vermont.

Submitted on 02 June 2011 by Barbara Reynolds, Director, Maryland Governor's Office on Service and Volunteerism, Baltimore/MD, USA

I really appreciate the author's detailed description of recent budget challenges at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

I'm the Director of a State Service Commission that oversees AmeriCorps*State grants and manages a Volunteer Generation Fund grant. And I've worked in this field for nearly 20 years.

I don't think calling for yet another makeover of the federal government agency that funds national and community service is the best course of action.

In my experience, the Corporation is an amazing partner and ally for the volunteerism field. But it is only a small part of this world. The real action -- innovation and impact and scale -- I believe, is always going to be at the local level. And it is probably going to be outside the political and budget confines of government, at any level.

I think the best thing we can all do is support our local volunteer centers. Here in Maryland, some of our most progressive leaders in volunteerism are found in the volunteer center network. The centers are smart, efficient, and deeply connected to their cities, counties, or regions. And they need help.

They need help that far outpaces the limited resources available in the Volunteer Generation Fund -- even if it were fully funded.

I think the best thing we can all do is reach out and offer support to our local centers with whatever support we have -- training, funding, marketing or publicity, and our own volunteer time.

Submitted on 02 June 2011 by Sam Elliston, Mgr of Spiritual Service, New Thought Unity Center, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

I have to agree with the author of the article and the comment from the RSVP leader in Ohio. I have some experience with AmeriCorps members as a trainer and I am dismayed that agencies are basically taking them on to coordinate volunteers, fully expecting to have a different member in a year, who may not know the job, and who will only be there for a year. None of them are supporting a Manager of Volunteers, to my knowledge.

Worse yet, many members report that they are treated as not quite employees, since they are "AmeriCorps" members; in effect second class citizens. I think the growth has been detrimental to the whole effort.

What to do? Well, it's government and I am not convinced that something this big will ever get it right- most laws don't unless they are very issue specific.

Unfortunately, currently for many people the act of volunteering means either the prescribed activities mentioned that receive stipends, or it means 100 people doing something together for a day and creating something that the community can point to.

I look forward to the Boomers rolling up their sleeves and tackling the issues with their independent spirit and willingness to do meaningful work.

Submitted on 01 June 2011 by Magdelena Holland, RSVP Director, Harrison County Senior Resources, Gulfport, MS, USA

This is the June marks the 40th anniversary for RSVP. This program has changed over the years and continues to meet the growing needs in our communities. RSVP is meeting critical needs. This senior corps program currently has the most overall volunteers. This is the one program that does not offer stipends to the volunteers within the corporation -- “More bang for your buck” I understand cutbacks are sometimes needed but why target RSVP? The cutback should have been distributed across the board. The Corporation needs not under estimate the power of our baby boomers and older senior volunteers.

Submitted on 01 June 2011 by a RSVP leader, Rhode Island, USA

RSVP Programs have been crippled in their attempts to respond to the influx of baby boomers just at the point when the flood gates of boomer volunteers are breaching the levies. With 20% funding reductions RSVP programs are no longer positioned to efficiently address the boomer barrage.

Submitted on 01 June 2011 from a RSVP leader, Ohio USA

As a leader of an RSVP and advocate in the field of volunteer engagement, I have to give Paula's article two thumbs up.

In our program, we've been preparing for a swift change in tides for a couple of years. Our program thinks much more "out of the box" and is what I would describe as being a very "progressive RSVP". We are successfully finding ways for Baby Boomers to create their own niche roles as volunteers, rather than forcing these round pegs into pre-existing square holes.

Unfortunately, the Corporation does not appear to reward this type of progressive application of RSVP. Instead, we all have received a crippling 20% reduction in funds. Knowing that Baby Boomers DEMAND flexibility and specialized support (including training opportunities, more personal service, creation of new service opportunities), why on Earth would any "leader of volunteer engagement" initiate a trend that only supports stipended volunteers in stifling, pre-defined volunteer positions? It shows a complete lack of understanding as to how volunteer engagement occurs at the local level.

There are other leaders in our field. Let's look to them (Points of Light) and support them in creating more avenues for volunteer engagement. Let's shake the dust off our old RSVP (and other Corporation sponsored manuals) and look for all the possibilities (instead of what we're not allowed to do) that allow us to actually SERVE our communities instead of shuffling more paperwork and responding to ever-changing grant requirements. And let's be sure we're all working steadily to redefine our programs so that they are more attractive to outside funders, especially because the days of the Corporation appear to be numbered.

Add Your Comment