Symposium | A Nation in Service

From Idea to Reality: A National-Service Platform

By Shirley Sagawa

In the United States, national service has become synonymous with the federal program known as AmeriCorps. The program supports both full-time and part-time national-service positions and provides participants modest stipends and, upon completion of their term of service, Eli Segal education awards of around $5,500 (named for an early and beloved AmeriCorps leader). As a result of this federal investment, which has been matched by private and other public funds, nearly one million Americans have had the opportunity to serve.

These AmeriCorps members tutor children, counsel low-income adults to help them become economically independent, recruit and supervise Habitat for Humanity volunteers, rebuild communities after disasters, and work in community health centers. Through the support of AmeriCorps, a decentralized network of programs has sprouted at the local, state, and national levels to engage youth and adults in substantial service to meet community needs.

In 2009, with broad bipartisan support, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act authorized an increase in the number of federal national-service positions—from approximately 75,000 to 250,000—and tied service to a defined set of measurable outcomes in several areas, including education, energy conservation, health, and opportunity for economically disadvantaged individuals.

The timing was right in many ways. High-quality AmeriCorps-funded programs—including City Year, Teach For America, and YouthBuild—were poised to grow dramatically, while new national-service organizations created outside of government, offering thousands of new positions, prepared to join the maturing AmeriCorps field.

However, authorizing growth in national service is not the same as funding that growth. Budget challenges and competing priorities have kept the number of AmeriCorps positions relatively flat—around 80,000 annually—despite high demand from both individuals wanting to serve and organizations wanting to engage them. To maintain the number of positions, the Corporation for National and Community Service, which administers AmeriCorps, has encouraged private-sector partnerships and joined with the White House, through an Interagency Task Force, to encourage other federal agencies to create AmeriCorps programs using their own funds. Nonetheless, a significant portion of the national service field now exists outside of AmeriCorps.

We need to think bigger to leverage the human capital represented by the half a million young adults who want to serve. Growing and strengthening national service in America demands the full participation of all elements of society—including government, the private sector, and ordinary citizens. Currently, no system outside of AmeriCorps certifies which service positions are worthwhile, and no single database allows interested individuals to easily identify them. The private sector can move in a more nimble way to fill these voids, taking advantage of technology out of government’s reach and making it easy for organizations to create programs and find people who want to serve. However, the private sector cannot do it alone. The significant funding provided by AmeriCorps is essential to a robust, high-quality system. A partnership that can build a community of publicly and privately funded programs and use technology to streamline searching, enable crowd funding, and increase quality could offer a solution to the many challenges that currently stymie the national-service movement.

Programs that are essentially similar to AmeriCorps exist independently of the federal government. But national service remains government-centric for several important reasons. First, all AmeriCorps members are eligible to receive an education award that they may use to pay for higher-education expenses or to pay back student loans. They also receive forbearance and deferral on certain student loans. These benefits are not available to participants in privately funded service programs.

Second, uncertainty regarding the status of privately funded programs with respect to minimum wage and other labor laws has limited their growth. Organizations must seek individual rulings at the federal level and, in many cases, at the state and local levels in order to pay their members a poverty-level living allowance rather than an hourly wage. While the Department of Labor has exempted AmeriCorps programs from federal labor rules, it has not issued any rulings relating to similar privately funded programs. Finally, because of the stipends involved and the limited pool of other funding for service—which is not a typical philanthropic priority—organizations necessarily turn to AmeriCorps, by far the largest funder in the field.

The field that has grown up around AmeriCorps has many strengths: a diverse body of service members and programs, high-quality initiatives, the ability to document their outcomes, and a sense of national identity.

It suffers, however, from several significant challenges. Programs are difficult to access and positions are limited, leaving hundreds of thousands of applicants unable to participate. There is no clear on-ramp for new programs, and resources for training are very limited. The training that does exist for programs focuses on complying with government rules. The national-service field operates in many cases in its own silo, which limits awareness of even the most effective programs and makes it less likely for national-service organizations to benefit from developments in the fields in which they operate. Rules limiting the participation of small programs and an emphasis on specific outcomes exclude many possible placements. Programs are not rewarded for member outcomes, so little emphasis has been placed on transitioning members into either education or employment. And because of legal interpretations that limit what kind of information AmeriCorps administrators can release to alumni organizations, the major alumni group for AmeriCorps members engages fewer than one in eight graduates.

Fortunately, we have the tools to solve the problems that constrain the growth of national service. Indeed, many of them are now commonplace in other fields. The “service-year platform” outlined in this symposium could incorporate all of these tools in a single platform and enable the scale and quality of national service to increase.

Certification of programs. Many activities—from summer camps to medical schools—are supported by accreditation or certification systems in which peers (in many cases, volunteers) assess the quality of organizations. In some cases, a successful review entitles the organization to specific benefits, such as the ability to accept federal financial aid or operate in a specific field.

A certification process for national-service programs would inspire the creation of new programs and offer those who want to serve some assurance that a program meets quality standards. Information about programs could be gleaned from reviews, spot checks, site visits, and feedback from corps members (say, via ratings or text-message surveys).

With a simple technology-based certification system, an organization could create a single position, or a set of related positions, that would make up a program. Some organizations might go on to apply to AmeriCorps, benefiting from their experience operating a privately funded program. Others might choose to continue on as certified programs, seeking higher quality ratings.

Searchable system. Today a person interested in doing a service year needs to undertake an extensive search—no single database of programs exists. Even the AmeriCorps site does not include all AmeriCorps programs, and those that it does include do not appear in a search if they are not currently recruiting. Without a searchable database, it would be challenging to execute a national call to a service year. However, a technology platform tied to both AmeriCorps and the certification system could make it easy for individuals not only to find programs, but for programs to find them.

Funding. Democratizing the funding of national service requires an easier way for funders of all types to find people and programs that fit their giving preferences. By grouping programs by characteristics, a technology platform could create cohorts of opportunities by issue, geography, or population of prospective corps members (veterans, disadvantaged youth, alumni of a specific college).

Crowdfunding has become an increasingly popular way for people to support causes or even individuals. Kickstarter, founded in 2009, already provides more funding for the arts than the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts. A crowdfunding platform for service could draw new resources into the field. More affluent parents are accustomed to providing support to their young adult children who take a gap or bridge year or participate in unpaid internships. Young people themselves may find ways to fund their own service experiences by launching crowdfunding campaigns.

Learning. Increased learning opportunities for both corps members and staff can improve the quality of service. Across the country, state commissions and organizations have developed training programs that could be shared with others. Online courses could enable corps members to learn new skills and to receive badges or other credentials recognized by employers, or even college credit. In all these ways, national service could serve the dual purposes of providing needed assistance to communities and advancing career and college opportunities for corps members.

Rewards. If this proposal were implemented, businesses, nonprofits, and public agencies could reward members for their service and, in so doing, encourage term completion. The Segal awards provide important benefits to AmeriCorps members. Those in certified positions not in the federal program would not be eligible for a Segal award, but they would be able to receive a variety of other benefits, ranging from scholarships offered by higher-education institutions to a rewards program in which members receive points for completing each month of service. Moreover, employers can give preference to those who complete a service-year term. Similarly, higher-education institutions can take such experiences into consideration in admissions and offer scholarships to those who complete a service year.

Corps member experience. This technology platform will enable corps members to record their service experiences, describing the kind of work they did in their service programs. Local leaders of nonprofit and community groups could then use this platform to find people who’ve developed skills in their areas of endeavor.

If these functions are combined in a common platform, ideally built outside of government but in partnership with AmeriCorps, large-scale national service can become a reality. The platform discussed here is currently under development by my organization, the National Conference on Citizenship, a federally chartered nonprofit organization working with the Franklin Project and the Corporation for National and Community Service. However, to realize its potential, the platform will need the support of organizations, business, and individuals, as well as state and local governments, to create new positions, fund them, and reward people who complete a service year.

In addition to the significant private-sector involvement necessary to build the platform and fund positions, we also need public-sector support and policy changes. AmeriCorps funding remains essential to supporting a strong base of programs, particularly for large-scale, high-impact programs that have the potential to grow and for programs engaging “opportunity youth,” who need extra support to succeed in and benefit from national-service programs. All AmeriCorps programs should be included in the platform and clearly designated as AmeriCorps. Over time, as new programs are established, they may choose to apply for AmeriCorps support. The Corporation for National and Community Service should develop a process to designate certified programs to receive Segal Education Awards. The expansion of the National Service Trust, the government program that issues the Education Awards, should be supported in order to accommodate this growth.

Because of the minimal stipends paid in national-service programs, student loans may be a barrier preventing many young people from serving. Student loan deferral and forbearance, an important benefit of AmeriCorps, should be extended to members serving in certified programs. Finally, AmeriCorps programs are exempted at the federal level from minimum wage and other requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act because AmeriCorps members are not considered employees of their programs. Certified positions should similarly be exempted.

National service is a form of human capital that could rapidly accelerate our ability to solve the nation’s biggest problems, while providing opportunities to a million young adults each year. To get there, all parts of society must contribute to building and supporting a system that enables nonprofit and public agencies to create positions, have them approved, find funding, and build quality online.

AmeriCorps remains central to national service: It symbolizes a federal investment, supports important public priorities, and provides benefits to members. However, despite decades of progress, the idea of a year of national service and the work of AmeriCorps programs are still far too absent from the national conversation, far too unknown as an option for young Americans, and far too undervalued as critical human capital against the nation’s challenges. A concerted effort engaging all parts of American society can enable us to change this state of affairs and realize the potential of this transformative idea.

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Shirley Sagawa is a visiting fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior policy advisor for America Forward. She is the author of The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers Are Transforming America, and is currently leading the development of the service-year platform for the National Conference on Citizenship.

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