News and analysis
March 18, 2012

National Service’s Fight for the Future

Partisan politics and leadership troubles stymie plans to expand volunteer corps

Corporation for National and Community Service photo by Scott Julian

The White House said this month that 1,600 new AmeriCorps members would be added to work on disaster recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Imagine you are a fervent believer in national service and it is 2009. President Obama has taken office and pledged to expand the country’s national-service programs. Michelle Obama, who once directed an AmeriCorps program in Chicago, has said community service will be one of her top causes as First Lady.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, a conservative Utah Republican, has teamed up with Sen. Edward Kennedy, a liberal Massachusetts Democrat, to sponsor the Serve America Act to expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 members to 250,000 by 2017—and it passes easily.

You start dreaming about a golden era for national service—and the superstars who might now be enticed to take over the Corporation for National and Community Service. Maybe a Colin Powell or a Caroline Kennedy. Or maybe a Chicago friend of the Obamas like Arne Duncan, who has been named secretary of education.

Or perhaps you are a nonprofit leader who hopes an expanded national-service budget can help your organization weather the bad economy by sending new workers.

But nothing close to that happens. Instead:

The White House nominates Patrick Corvington, a little-known foundation executive, to head the federal national-service agency. He steps down after about 15 months under murky circumstances.

Republicans win control of the House and try repeatedly to eviscerate both AmeriCorps and the corporation. Partisan gridlock delays getting a new permanent leader in place.

The budget climate becomes so dismal that President Obama stops trying to put much of the Serve America Act into effect. Instead of the 140,000 AmeriCorps members envisaged for 2012, there are now 82,500.

Help for Emergencies

For supporters of national service, that roller-coaster ride has created new questions about how to sell, or even repurpose, AmeriCorps to buffer it from the political winds.

Should they focus on what it accomplishes or on how it builds good citizens? Should they take a harder look at the concept of national service as an end in itself?

The Obama administration signaled a new approach last week, saying it would put 1,600 new AmeriCorps members to work helping the Federal Emergency Management Agency respond to disasters.

The unveiling of “FEMA Corps” hit all of the right buttons for today’s Washington: It would be a low-cost way to meet critical needs, give young people job skills, and save government money, since it would cost FEMA less to use AmeriCorps members than its own disaster-reserve members.

FEMA would foot the bill, transferring about $54.4-million a year to the corporation once the program is fully operational.

Robert Velasco II, acting chief executive of the Corporation for National and Community Service, told a news conference it could be a model for other AmeriCorps partnerships with federal agencies.

'Budget Hostage’

The five-year program was a rare bit of good news in an era in which AmeriCorps has become what Kyle Caldwell, chief executive of the Michigan Nonprofit Association, calls a “budget hostage.”

Nonprofits that use AmeriCorps members in his state are finding it difficult to plan, he says, because they’re wondering: “Will that AmeriCorps member or program be there tomorrow?”

To its critics, especially conservative ones, things would be better if those programs disappeared tomorrow. Republican lawmakers have mounted numerous attempts to kill Ameri­Corps since it was created, and many still have deep reservations about government involvement in what they believe should be the private act of volunteering.

FreedomWorks, an advocacy group with close ties to the Tea Party, continues to push for an end to AmeriCorps as a way to cut government spending. In a 2011 paper, its foundation called it a “deeply flawed program” that pays participants “to 'volunteer’ for government-approved service programs.”

After growing during the first two years of Mr. Obama’s presidency, Ameri-Corps faced budget cuts in 2011 and 2012—and President Obama has proposed keeping AmeriCorps participants steady at 82,500 in 2013.

The budget battles have also taken their toll on other programs operated by the federal national-service agency: Learn and Serve America, a community-service program for students, has been killed. President Obama’s 2013 budget proposed no money for funds created by the Serve America Act to promote volunteerism and offer management training to nonprofits.

The proposal reflects “careful deliberations that resulted in targeted spending cuts,” giving priority to “our core national-service programs,” says Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

Promoting Its Worth

Supporters generally cite the following rationales for AmeriCorps, which gives its mostly young members a stipend and a scholarship for 10 to 12 months of service, usually at nonprofits: It is a low-cost way to help people in need; it helps build civic leaders; and it provides an outlet for a pent-up desire by Americans to serve their country.

AmeriCorps applications have risen from 360,000 in 2009 to 582,000 in 2012, though that may partly reflect a lack of jobs in a tough economy.

But some experts say it’s time to sharpen those arguments to put more emphasis on what participants accomplish and less on the feel-good aspects of “service.”

National-service and volunteerism advocates need to ditch the “culture of politeness” that leads to “celebrating effort rather than celebrating impact,” says Aaron Hurst, president of the Taproot Foundation. He and others say the White House has not helped by promoting one-shot, low-impact “days of service.”

Mr. Hurst, whose foundation promotes pro bono services, says AmeriCorps should refashion itself into a training program for nonprofit workers. “That’s one thing that would really shift that discussion,” he says. “It’s about jobs, it’s not about service for the sake of service.”

Flexible and Accountable

Congress and the White House have also put pressure on the corporation to show that AmeriCorps programs make a difference—and the agency’s current strategic plan outlines 16 “performance measures” that nonprofits that run AmeriCorps programs must meet.

A February report by the Government Accountability Office says the corporation is struggling with that new approach, especially “striking a balance between providing grantees with the flexibility to meet local needs and holding them accountable for performance.”

But Peter Frumkin, professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Serving Country and Community: Who Benefits From National Service?, says he worries the pendulum could swing too far in the direction of emphasizing accomplishments because it seems more politically palatable.

“You have to be careful because when you make the argument that it’s an efficient and easy way to get things done,” he says, “then the question is, is this low-cost labor displacing full-time work or even union work?”

The best argument is that, like the military, national service builds “civic commitment,” he adds.

Two Views

While many national-service advocates are disappointed by the slowdown of the Serve America Act, others say it may have headed off real problems.

Shirley Sagawa, a national-service expert who helped draft the legislation creating the corporation, says the additional money could have helped spread AmeriCorps members more evenly across the country. “There are states out there managing just a few dozen members when in fact they could absorb a great deal more,” she says.

But David Reingold, a professor of public policy at Indiana University, who worked at the corporation from 2002 to 2004, says the nonprofit world was not ready for a huge influx of new cash—and some groups may have ended up mishandling it. “Rapid, rapid growth is very dangerous,” he says.

Selling Points

To true believers, winning support for AmeriCorps is a matter of educating lawmakers and voters about its value.

When a group of nonprofit, government, business, and academic leaders gathered in January in San Francisco to brainstorm about the future of national service and volunteerism, they agreed they needed “to do a better job of telling the story of the power of national service,” says Michelle Nunn, chief executive of the Points of Light Institute, a group that promotes volunteerism,

The corporation has stepped up its efforts to highlight endorsements from state and local officials.

For example, Walter Maddox, mayor of Tuscaloosa, Ala., showed up at the news conference to announce FEMA Corps and touted the work of AmeriCorps members who helped Habitat for Humanity rebuild houses after a tornado devastated his town last spring.

The agency is also asking groups with premier nonprofit brands like Habitat for Humanity and Teach for America to do more to publicize their connection to AmeriCorps.

While not widely known, every participant in Teach for America, which places college graduates in public-school classrooms, is an AmeriCorps member.

The federal program provides only about 5 percent of the group’s overall budget, but every participant is eligible for the AmeriCorps scholarship—a critical selling point for those who are required by state law to take teacher-certification courses, says Kate Kavouras, Teach for America’s managing director of public partnerships.

Meanwhile, the partisan battles over national service continue in Washington.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who has both championed the program and criticized it for bad management, praises AmeriCorps members and says supporters should press Congress to “continue investing in critical programs that help fill chronically unmet needs.”

But Rep. Marlin Stutzman, Republican of Indiana, introduced the Volunteer Freedom Act last month to eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service. “My bill is based on a simple truth: It’s not volunteering if it comes with a paycheck,” he says in a statement. “Americans volunteer because we believe in better communities, stronger families, and personal commitments. Volunteering isn’t something we do for our bottom line.”