This forum was made possible in part through the generous support of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.
Posted October 14, 2008, 9:00am
Good morning and welcome to this NewTalk online forum on the topic, What Should Universal Service Look Like?
First, thanks to NewTalk for assembling such a stellar group of participants, many of whom have labored long and hard in the vineyards of national service. My job as moderator over the next three days is to steer the conversation as far as possible toward consensus around concrete answers to our question.
This could be a pivotal moment for service. Momentum seems to be gathering behind the idea of dramatically expanding opportunities for people to serve their community and their country. And at the ServiceNation summit last Sept. 11, both Sens. McCain and Obama endorsed legislation to triple the size of AmeriCorps.
On the other hand, the global financial meltdown will certainly constrain the next president’s ability to spend money on national service. It might, however, also have the effect—to borrow William James’ phrase—of “inflaming the civic temper” of a nation facing the ruinous consequences of heedless self-interest.
In any case, I’d like to get things rolling today by posing two broad questions to the group: What do we really mean by “universal” service, and what are the chief obstacles to achieving it?
Tomorrow, we’d like to focus the conversation on the biggest and best ideas for enlarging community and national service. On Thursday, we’ll conclude with a discussion on the means by which those ideas could be translated into reality.
Thanks again for taking part.
Posted October 14, 2008, 9:18am
Public service is a high calling. It involves more than serving in the government, either in a civilian or military role. It can also involve service in the not-for-profit or citizen sector and even in selected occupations in the for-profit sector that are designed to help others (e.g., teaching, nursing, elder care).
Public service can also help to bring our nation together in order to focus on the future and the greater good. These reasons and more are why I support the concept of every American providing some meaningful amount of public service at some point during their lifetime.
Posted October 14, 2008, 9:48am
The outpouring from Americans all over the country in response to the ServiceNation Presidential Forum with Senators McCain and Obama on September 11, the ServiceNation Summit, and the September 27 Day of Action remind us that Americans are ready to connect their day-to-day lives with the American story and help shape history. They want to be called to serve causes beyond their comfort and every act of compassion makes a difference.
As we move forward in our efforts to strengthen the culture of service, we should remember that as we work to increase the opportunities for full-time national and international service, we also must leverage the federal investment to increase opportunities for Americans to volunteer in their local communities, through schools, faith-based institutions, workplaces and on their own as social entrepreneurs. The Kennedy-Hatch legislation, recently introduced with a growing number of co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle, recognizes the power of marrying national service with traditional volunteering.
In these tough economic times, we also might look to history. During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt mobilized more than 3 million young, jobless men over a decade to strengthen our public lands. America's best resource—its people—tackled a great national challenge. There is a strong economic case for community and national service, and, increasingly, Governors around the country are enlisting their citizens in tackling tough state problems. Imagine what millions of Americans could do to help curb high school dropout, restore the health of America's rivers, and end preventable and treatable malaria in Africa. There is no better investment than an investment in the innovation of our people.
Posted October 14, 2008, 10:03am
Citizen service is a central part of civil society, the realm of voluntary action by people with shared interests that produces everything from nonprofit organizations and advocacy movements to book clubs and neighborhood pot lucks. Long an American specialty, it is a source of both social connections and social solutions. It fills gaps where business and government don’t quite meet every need, just as City Year’s “whole child/whole school” initiative helps with the extras that teachers are not paid to do but that help disadvantaged children learn.
Leadership from civil society is especially vital today, when many Americans feel they cannot count on government officials or establishment figures to fix the mess in the world—indeed, as we have seen, flawed leaders are sometimes part of the problem. Complaining doesn’t help. The partisan divide in politics has been at its widest—meaning ugliest—in living memory. Recent elections, including this one, have unleashed enough anger, complaint, and criticism to spread the raw sewage to states not hit by floods or hurricanes. But acrimony produces nothing except a collective bad mood. Service, on the other hand, produces hope—one action, one small win, one child at a time.
Organized programs of service help democracy in America proceed from the grass roots up—and the self-organizing potential of the Internet can even help us. Philanthropy and community service can help bring us together, under leaders who inspire and engage us. We can find new sources of leadership among a generation of young social entrepreneurs and the older generation of baby boomers who refuse to “retire”—they want to stay active and make a difference in the world. We can build on the current national service movement through AmeriCorps, which is small but powerful, to dramatically expand opportunities to serve. AmeriCorps members can help guide and enhance the infrastructure for service of many kinds, which includes companies engaging employees in service, service learning in schools, new educational opportunities for people in later life, and full-time national service for young adults. If we encourage service across this spectrum, some full-time, some part-time, some spare-time, we can unite people in common concern for communities while solving problems.
Posted October 14, 2008, 10:36am
No one doubts any of the above. As I understand the question, it's what do we mean by universal service, and what are the obstacles to getting there. A form of the military draft would provide true universal service, but I don't think that's likely to happen. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 to preserve and enhance national parks and forests as a quasi-military effort, with enlistment driven by sheer poverty. Today a broad effort to "green" the country in terms of recycling, reducing fossil fuel use and other forms of energy consumption would be most likely to catch the attention of a broad swath of our young people. Given the spending restrictions that accompany our massive debt, this would have to be coordinated at low cost, but I believe millions of young people would respond to an imaginative campaign. As the wages of excess continue to be exposed, people of all ages are ready to respond to invitations to contribute and even sacrifice.
As for the obstacles, the first is, of course, the kind of financial strictures we face in today's economic climate. New government programs, to the extent they're possible at all, will have to be cost-neutral.
Posted October 14, 2008, 10:42am
David Walker, John Bridgeland and Rosabeth Kanter, three important national leaders in these efforts, have all clearly and helpfully set out the call to service. Using their comments as a platform, I want to address another aspect of Will’s question: what do we mean by universal?
For many of us universal does not preempt community. A universal movement should play out at the local level—with neighbor helping neighbor whether directly or through community- or faith-based work. We know from our work at the Corporation for National and Community Service that Americans in record numbers are ready and willing to serve—and now we need to get more of them to do so. I do not think however that concentrating solely on how to expand the role of the national government is the right or best prism. Rather to me national—or universal—service means everyone should serve and it should be part of our culture.
Even at the federal level, government often intervenes with government-run programs when it could produce better social results through leveraging volunteer service. How to connect volunteers locally to those who need help—and how to build a local infrastructure to support volunteerism—should be the area of concentration.
Posted October 14, 2008, 11:10am
“Universal” service would mean giving all citizens at various walks of life—youth, college students, professionals, seniors—an opportunity to meaningfully lend their talents and skills to redressing some of society’s biggest challenges. In this context, universal service would be constructed to not only make individual participants feel good but provide them with valuable insights into why social ills exist and concrete skills they can apply to eradicate them over the long term.
One of the biggest obstacles to achieving universal service is our current capacity to provide meaningful and impactful service opportunities for all. It is one thing to ask people to merely get involved; it is another thing entirely to provide them with opportunities to not just ameliorate social ills but actually solve them. To do that, we are going to need to provide much better avenues for organizations with a proven track record of success to deepen their impact by scaling up dramatically. Increasing AmeriCorps funding—and making it more flexible—would be one way of taking on this enormous infrastructure challenge; providing access to innovative sources of private sector funding would be another. In the current political and economic environment, securing both private and public sector buy-in will be vital for making universal service a reality.
Posted October 14, 2008, 11:14am
Steve Goldsmith's point, and those earlier, are well taken. Sacrifice is "in the wind" these days, and obviously service under that rubric does not have to stem from federal efforts. But it does have to be encouraged at the national level if it is truly to become part of our culture and compete with the attractions of the shopping malls.
Posted October 14, 2008, 11:28am
I agree with Steve Goldsmith to this extent: “Universal” doesn’t have to mean federal, and it shouldn’t. But it does mean everybody. A true system of national service is more than an opportunity—it’s an obligation. In the best of all possible worlds, all young persons would be asked to spend a year after high school—or at age 18 for non-completers—serving their country, many in local communities, some at the national level, including the military. If we can’t afford it, then there should be a lottery in which all participate. We desperately need new institutions that send two long-neglected messages: citizenship is a matter of responsibility, not just choice; and: we’re all equal as citizens, regardless of wealth and status. Genuinely universal service would be a large step in this direction.
Posted October 14, 2008, 11:45am
Reinforcing what Steve and Nick have highlighted and I touch on below, the Census shows us that most Americans—about 61 million last year alone—serve through a faith-based institution, school or other community-serving institution. Many others serve informally. Worrying about what these institutions do to ignite further volunteer service matters a lot if we want a culture of service. What are the institutional changes that schools, workplaces and community groups can make to strengthen their systemic volunteer efforts? What is the connection of those efforts to federal and state investments? What are the respective roles for each? Picking up on Tracy-Elizabeth's good comments, I believe it is the identification of key problems that individuals see that they can address that will help effect the sea-change. Also as she indicates, we need to provide the mechanisms that meaningfully recruit, train, utilize and reward individuals for their service, tap organizations with substantial capacity and good track records, and leave room for the next generation of Teach for America and City Year to emerge.
I want to take Nick Taylor up on his offer to get this group and others who are interested to design a new effort that taps into one of our most urgent needs: further igniting the green economy.
Posted October 14, 2008, 12:06pm
I believe we are all part of a larger interdependent national and global community. I’m often drawn to I Corinthians 12:12, which reads, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts: and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. advanced the notion of the beloved community, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.” Universal service means providing meaningful opportunities, and access to those opportunities, for every citizen in the United States to engage in service to the community—service that alleviates unmet social needs.
This will necessitate an increased availability of a broad range of giving options where people from all walks of life have a chance to contribute what they are able to give voluntarily. These opportunities should be, by design, responsive to the volunteers’ skills, abilities, interest, etc. Moreover, these opportunities should foster a commitment to lifelong service and even an earnest desire to pursue careers in public service. Promoting and sustaining a culture of commitment to national service by leading NGOs, government, schools, corporations and, indeed, the citizenry itself is crucial. The need is great and this need must be communicated effectively to and understood by all Americans. Service is the social glue that we, as an increasingly diverse society, so desperately need.
Working together side-by-side with our neighbors for the common good has a powerful effect, as we at Habitat for Humanity have seen for more than 30 years. Habitat volunteers develop an appreciation for helping others that changes the way they lead the rest of their lives. This isn’t unique to Habitat. We all see it, and it is what we need to foster in any service program put forth. We, as citizens of the United States and indeed the world, have a responsibility to each other, to work together to solve our problems, and to move the nation toward a brighter future.
Posted October 14, 2008, 12:15pm
Echoing elements of what Steve Goldsmith, John Bridgeland and others have said about possible meanings of "universal": There is so much demand for high-impact, transformational service opportunities that a first step should be an infrastructure to meet that demand. So I support doing that first before creating a one-size-fits-all universal service program for young people of a certain age. Please don't forget the other forms of service now arising out of the business world. Some are Timberland-like 40-hour-a-year programs but others are longer-term selective opportunities, such as IBM's pioneering Global Service Corps which deploys people full-time for a month on the ground but with much work before and much work after with the target communities being served. And Experience Corps taps another age group. How would we ever define "universal" in the citizen service movement the way one could define "universal military service"? It spans too many ages, too many vehicles for significant service.
What we need is to define a service spectrum, or maybe a service matrix, and make sure that the infrastructure, resource assistance, quality controls, training tools, role model organizations, etc. are identified so that we can fill every block and vastly increase service.
That's step 1: building on what we have, with a major expansion. Step 2: assess results, applaud great successes, and determine if even more people should be mobilized to serve, and how.
I love this dialogue and am learning a lot from great minds. But I still wonder whether we should emphasize the people who serve ("universal" in that they all serve) or the communities/needs being served ("universal" in that all communities get service corps members to meet their most pressing needs).
Posted October 14, 2008, 12:20pm
It hasn't taken long—it usually doesn't in such conversations—for two large tensions within the world of service to surface. At the risk of oversimplifying matters, let me sharpen them a bit.
To the first is the tension between community service and national service. Community service is ground-up, organized by local churches and civic groups, part-time, uncompensated and episodic. This is the de Tocqueville model of civic engagement and mutual aid, and is often what conservatives have in mind when they think of service.
National service is top down, organized by government, often full-time and compensated. This approach was inspired by the WPA, CCC and G.I. Bill and appeals to progressives and communitarians who think the rights and responsibilities of citizenship have gotten seriously out of whack.
Both are valuable. The question is, what is the relationship between them? Should national service be seen as another powerful catalyst and organizer of local volunteerism of all kinds? Or should it be focused on specific national needs that currently fall between the cracks of government and market provision? Can it do both, say by funding corps like City Year and Teach for America, and offering vouchers for volunteers who want to serve with local civic groups?
The second is the tension between voluntary and compulsory service. Is service simply another opportunity to do good and get a modest reward for it, or is it as Bill Galston suggests a civic obligation, like jury duty? And is it possible to get to anything like "universal" service without some element of coercion?
Posted October 14, 2008, 1:22pm
That is the question, isn't it? I tend to think of national service as pursuing some agreed-on national goal, such as further greening the economy as in John Bridgeland's posting, or a broad effort to take on infrastructure shortfalls. These two would be my main candidates for the goals of a national service program.
It's a slight mistake to think of the WPA as a top-down effort. It was national in that its checks were written by the federal government, but the projects were all generated locally according to local needs and its workers were the ones in those locales who needed public jobs. It cumulatively renewed the national infrastructure. Today, I suspect local reviews of both infrastructure needs and green initiatives would produce similar nationally significant results.
Posted October 14, 2008, 3:23pm
I don’t think the two concepts of community service (ground up/volunteer model and top down/full-time and compensated model) as stated by Will are mutually exclusive. I don’t see it as an “either/or” but rather as a “both/and.” In over 1,500 Habitat affiliates across the United States, we have more than 500 AmeriCorps volunteers serving alongside our future homeowners and our affiliate volunteers. It’s a win-win model that we’d like to see replicated. In our experience, full-time volunteers can create capacity within our affiliates that allows for more part-time community volunteers to participate.
Posted October 14, 2008, 3:46pm
This is an interesting and useful conversation—thanks to all participants.
With respect to Will’s questions, I think he is right on the mark in noting these divisions in the past. But what does this mean for the future? Do we need to “choose sides” and pursue one path more ardently, or is there a new, bigger framing that is fully inclusive and fully respectful of both points of view?
In part, I think the divisions between national, community and stipended, and volunteer ventures seem much more important when the activity itself is the focus. But as John Reckford points out so usefully, if the goal is neither volunteering nor service, but rather “building houses,” then the divisions become much less important. And you can substitute “teaching kids” or “winterizing houses” or any other major undertaking for “building houses,” then the “how” of volunteering and service becomes much less important.
Our country and our world right now have so many challenges of real importance and urgency, and we need human talent and idealism to help meet those challenges. Some people will engage that through work, some through volunteering, some through national service, some through philanthropy.
So this “John” will add his name to the other “Johns”—Bridgeland and Reckford—to suggest that however we do it, we need to dedicate ourselves to rallying people of all ages to take part, take ownership, and take leadership in meeting the challenges of our time. If we really dedicate ourselves to that basic approach to meeting challenges, then there will be plenty of space for national service, volunteer action and other, new ways for people to engage.
Posted October 14, 2008, 4:13pm
Thank you, Will, for taking our friendly conversation and broad agreement and forcing us to address—or create—some tension. Unfortunately, I have to admit I do agree with your framing of these issues. My views on both questions are as follows:
On community versus national: I choose not to choose. We need both. The military obviously is national and there are terrific national service organizations like CityYear. I have worked over the last eight years to make our country’s model of national service, through the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), not only more “universally” available across the nation but also one that supports—and serves as an infrastructure for—local volunteerism.
And on voluntary versus compulsory service: everyone should serve. Bill Galston is one of our country’s best voices on behalf of this model of duty. I agree that all Americans should serve. I do have two reservations. First, compulsory service would be unaffordable if it means paid service. Second, and more importantly, conscription just does not feel the same as service to me. We live in a time when America’s challenges are growing—when, every day, more and more individual Americans are hurting. But we also live in a time when government is already outspending what it takes in. We will only be able to address these problems if we expand the pool of Americans serving. How can we frame service not as conscription but as a way to help solve our shared challenges and make life better for our neighbors?
Posted October 14, 2008, 4:35pm
The service community is one that likes to avoid tension and find common ground. A great conversation. Thank you, Will Marshall, for pushing for specifics, but Thank you, Steve Goldsmith, for avoiding false choices.
As the idea of "national and community service" expands, with "national" taking place via communities (how else does one do "national" when the military is not involved, although it might not be one's home community?) and many age groups involved, what would "compulsory" mean? Sometime before the age of 70 if you live that long? Or is this just a requirement for 17 year olds? That's why I think we should be wary of "compulsory" now. Service can be made a high school graduation requirement, as it is in some places, but we have too many school dropouts, and the service isn't necessarily high impact nor transformational. I think we need to offer opportunities and incentives, such as college scholarships for oneself or children/grandchildren and then use moral suasion. Also, there need to be many forms of service because one type based on a military model could narrow the idea of what service means.
So again, I come down to a spectrum and making sure there are sufficient opportunities, resources, incentives, and training for every type of service at every stage of life (a la John Gompert's Experience Corps). That is a realistic phase one.
Posted October 14, 2008, 4:41pm
Steve, I agree that we don't have to choose between national and community service. But I do think we need to figure out the relationship between them, and how they relate to achieving our goal—if it is our goal—of universal service. What I'm hearing mostly is: more of everything. Maybe that's inevitable given the many different visions of service people bring to this debate. But if service is going to move from the margins of our public life to its center, some big actors or coalition of them are going to have to make it happen, and that will entail making choices. So a little more provocation as we near the end of Day 1:
* Is all service equal, or is some more equal than others? Can we tackle the nation's social deficits by incremental expansions of civic volunteerism?
* Are we content to see community and national service grow organically, or do we want public action to scale it up dramatically? If so, on what basis should government set priorities, assuming we can't afford to expand everything at once?
* When we talk about universal service, whom do we envision serving? Young people? Retirees? Middle and high school kids?
* If we don't adopt some sort of compulsory system of service, are there incentives powerful enough to attract volunteers on a scale large enough to merit being called "universal"?
Posted October 14, 2008, 5:28pm
This is a great discussion! And I am eager to jump in and reinforce the great points Steve Goldsmith and the two Johns (JR and JG) are making about the relationship between community and national service. I am with Steve and firmly believe we should choose NOT to choose. In our ServiceNation campaign, we are focusing on increasing opportunities for all types of service because it is so clear that community and national service work in virtuous synergy. Community service volunteers are often inspired to spend a year doing national service. And studies show that national service alums become lifelong community service volunteers at higher rates than non-alums. So if we are talking about engaging increasing numbers of Americans in service over the course of their lifetimes, it is critical to open and emphasize all the pathways into service. Just as important is the critical issue of leverage: as Jon Reckford points out, and knows so well, AmeriCorps volunteers are critical to increasing and managing community volunteer capacity. Jon mentioned Habitat’s experience.
I’d like to add that in 2007, the 75,000 full- and part-time members of AmeriCorps mobilized and directed 1.7 million community volunteers across our country. This management role is particularly critical when it comes to increasing volunteer surge capacity in the aftermath of natural disasters. In 2007, on the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, 1,064 AmeriCorps members managed more than 138,000 volunteers. And this same leveraging power was at play throughout this past summer—from the floods of Iowa to the ravages of Hurricane Ike—where just over a thousand AmeriCorps members helped manage (and continue to manage) the tens of thousands of community service volunteers helping with the cleanup. My conclusion: the impact and power of service is maximized when we focus on both community AND national service.
Posted October 14, 2008, 5:34pm
In my view, every American should contribute at least one to two years of their life to serving our society. This would mean a universal service requirement. At the same time, that requirement could be met through serving in various roles, at different times, in different sectors of the economy, and through a range of organizations. If you believe in such a requirement, one would need to address a number of key questions. For example, how do you define, implement, monitor and enforce any such national service requirement?
Posted October 14, 2008, 6:15pm
We are all in heated agreement I think, but this wasn't always the case. Alan makes terrific points and has led a wonderful effort called ServiceNation. One of the aspects that I hoped was unique about the Freedom Corps effort was the marriage of policies supporting national service with policies supporting the mobilization of traditional volunteers. As Steve Goldsmith knows, we had an express policy, reflected in executive orders and new regulations, to ensure new federal investments in AmeriCorps, for example, leveraged capacity building to support more traditional volunteers. We often cited the Habitat model. As Alan points out, over the last year, many volunteers on this NewTalk conversation came together to develop a 10-point agenda as part of ServiceNation. What emerged, and is now part of the Kennedy Hatch legislation, is both support for a Volunteer Generation Fund and increases in full-time national service positions, in turn leveraging more traditional volunteers. Not only do we not need to make a choice, we need to be creative and deliberate in marrying the two concepts.
If we are going to harness the two powerful demographics—Millennials and Boomers—as John Gomperts and David Walker will admonish we must—in greater numbers with greater effect, we will need both national service and more effective mechanisms at the local level to tap their talents. What would a new civic highway for seniors look like, utilizing the latest technologies, supported by community infrastructure? We are having this conversation with the AARP and innovative thinkers in the fields of technology and community mobilization, if anyone wants to join.
This NewTalk is filling a great need—to foster a conversation among a community that cares about enlisting more of the nation in service. It's great!!
Posted October 14, 2008, 6:48pm
As we end today's discussion, I'd like to thank you all for your thoughtful and spirited comments. Everyone stayed on topic and we achieved some clarity about the synergy between national and community service.
Frankly, I'm not sure we got to the bottom of what we mean by universal service or how it might transform our society. Everyone should feel free to pick up on points from today's discussion they really want to respond to.
Otherwise, the conversation tomorrow moves from the conceptual to the concrete and centers on how to take community and national service to scale.
Please offer your best ideas for expanding national service, strengthening the civic infrastructure that supports it in communities, leveraging private investment in service and otherwise giving more Americans a chance to give something back. We'd also be interested in examples of specific programs and approaches you think work best, and why. It may not be possible, but it'd be great to have by the end of the day an agenda of three or four ideas that would have a galvanic effect on service.
Good evening, and let's pick this up tomorrow.
Posted October 15, 2008, 9:13am
Will—thank you for a good job moderating. I think you are asking really three very basic and vital questions: why, how and who.
First, on the question of “why”—what is the role of universal service in society? At heart, I think those who believe in the power of service and volunteering see this as an approach that is effective in meeting two essential challenges in our society. One is the feeling that our society is splintered in too many ways. While we rightly celebrate both our diversity and our individualism, we also find great power in common enterprise, in coming together as Americans to achieve great things. That sense of shared enterprise, of common goals, of common good is as deeply American as our individualism and they can live side-by-side. But we must ask people, not occasionally but consistently, to take part in, take responsibility for this jointly held ownership of our society. That, to me, is what can help define 21st century patriotism and what it means to be an American. And, as discussed by various participants yesterday, if we can engage people in large-scale service and volunteer action, and direct that energy and the can-do spirit, at some of our biggest challenges, we can not only bring people together but really begin to grind down some of the most persistent problems in our country and beyond. That, in my mind, is the potential for a transformative impact on society.
That brings me to Will’s second question—how can we get this done? Various people mentioned the need for infrastructure. That is absolutely right—from the national to the local level, we need a vastly improved infrastructure to support service and volunteer action if we want to channel that energy toward effective work on big problems. The power of what can be accomplished is enormous, but it won’t happen organically and magically—mobilizing people for effective action requires organization and infrastructure. We also need to remember to ask. We are not prepared to conscript people into service, but that doesn’t mean we can’t “ask,” powerfully, pointedly, consistently. And that “ask” has to happen at every level—from the bully pulpit of the White House to the street corner.
Finally, the last question—who? All too often, I find that national service is heard as synonymous with youth service. I am a huge advocate of youth service, but I think true national service must include people of all ages. John Bridgeland mentioned the terrific work he is doing with AARP to advance an agenda that vastly expands the opportunities for service by people who have finished their midlife careers. As we all know, there is an enormous demographic wave of individuals who are approaching what used to be thought of as retirement age. But that group of people has the talent and idealism that we need. We can’t afford to push people to the sidelines prematurely, and we can’t fashion the kind of society that we want if we segregate and isolate people who are older. The vast majority of people over 60 are healthy and strong and eager to participate and contribute. It is just as urgent that we find the ways and means to engage these folks, as it is to engage younger people. Then “national service” will not be the thing that older people sit around and say that young people should do, it will be something that people expect and look forward to in all stages of life.
Posted October 15, 2008, 10:11am
John has set the table nicely for today's discussion by identifying two ideas that draw many to national service - the rare opportunity it affords to bring Americans together across class and ethnic lines ("bridging social capital," in Bob Putnam's phrase) and the need to marshal civic energies to tackle stubborn social problems that aren't yielding much to government or private remedies.
I'd also like to pick up on his point about the need for infrastructure and organization, and ask everyone to suggest specific ways to expand opportunities for people to serve.
To kick things off, I'll mention a proposal PPI made several years back for creating a "Boomer Corps" within AmeriCorps. It would give aging boomers like me a chance to give back by tutoring kids, working in civic organizations and charities, and providing in-home care and support for the very old. In return for a year's service they would earn "silver scholarships" to help defray college expenses for their kids or grandchildren. An alternative idea would be to let volunteers earn vouchers to pay premiums on long-term health care plans. In any case, the idea of organizing a way to tap the enormous reservoir of skills and knowledge amassed by America's biggest generation seems irresistable, especially since boomers seem likely to redefine retirement in more active terms.
Posted October 15, 2008, 10:44am
John Gomperts and Marc Freedman [of Civic Ventures] have led the way on the engagement of 50 plus Americans in encore careers and volunteer service.
Following on their good work, Bob Putnam, Harris Wofford and I wrote a report for the AARP entitled, More to Give: Tapping the Talents of the Baby Boomer, Silent and Greatest Generations. Working with Geoff Garin of Hart Associates, our research found: 1) Boomers and Silents believe they are leaving the world in worse condition than they inherited it, feeling that they have not done their part; 2) tens of millions of Boomers and Silents expect to be, and are, increasing their volunteer service after retirement; 3) they have intense interest in three areas—mentoring and tutoring youth, helping the elderly live independently in their homes as long as possible, and working through faith-based groups. Millions also express interest in joining formal programs, such as Peace Corps, Meals on Wheels, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Volunteer Senior Rangers in National Parks.
Consistent with Will Marshall's vision, we recommended, and tested the attractiveness of, various policies. Transferable education awards and group health insurance in exchange for significant commitments of volunteer service were the most popular incentives. We also called for the expansion of the Experience Corps model, recognizing that most seniors will need to continue to earn at least a small stipend for their service, and to make the education award they earn transferable. We have a number of recommendations at the local and state levels as well and encourage those interested to read the report, found at aarp.org or civicententerprises.net.
Posted October 15, 2008, 11:18am
I’m not convinced that the infrastructure problem is as tough as some people think. Thousands of organizations across the country need help every day, and they know what they’d do if people showed up to offer it. The bottleneck is connecting potential volunteers with available hosts. In that regard, I’ve long been impressed with the work that Michelle Nunn and Hands On Atlanta have been doing. We’d take a big step forward if we had a similar clearinghouse in every community of any size in the country. That would be a truly strategic investment.
Posted October 15, 2008, 1:45pm
Bill Galston has raised an interesting point about connecting volunteers to civic and charitable groups that need them. I'd encourage other participants to speak from their experience on the issue of capacity. I understand that Habitat for Humanity uses full-time AmeriCorps volunteers to oversee people who volunteer to build houses. Is there a limit to how many of these volunteers Habitat could use? Do groups like Teach for America, City Year and Experience Corps have big waiting lists? Other than money, what limits are there on your capacity to match volunteers to useful work?
Posted October 15, 2008, 2:10pm
The major tension, opportunity and challenge in encouraging more local and national service opportunities—whether for Boomers or Millennials—is developing models that produce more value than cost. By value, we might typically think of a number of measures: what the volunteer gets out of the experience; the benefit to the person being helped; and how a community—or the country as a whole—is strengthened through meaningful interaction between its citizens.
There is a place for all of these measures of course. But value also requires that we look to our great history in America of using service as a way to produce strength when we are overextended in terms of obligations.
So in this sense I am glad we are talking about meaningful ways to increase the number of Americans who serve—in real terms I'd like to move the number from just over 60 million to closer to 80 million. This increase would provide a larger legion of individuals helping those that government is not reaching because it doesn’t have either the money and/or the compassion of a dedicated neighbor. But how do we encourage an increase in service without an untenable increase in cost?
Our CNCS surveys show that the dropout rate for volunteers is rising because many don’t have an adequately satisfying or engaging experience. As Mayor of Indianapolis, I saw many well-intentioned volunteers poorly managed by staff who viewed them as an inconvenience rather than an opportunity. While I agree with Bill Galston that organizations across the country could use more volunteers, they could also use more support in how best to capitalize on volunteers’ time and energy.
At the same time, we see young-at-heart, active “seniors” and working professionals wanting to dedicate their talents but needing a trusted intermediary to match and support them. We also see college students who don’t serve because of barriers as simple as a lack of transportation or adequate assistance from their college service offices. Work-study students need more options off-campus in the community. Again I agree with Bill that some form of clearinghouse can address these bottlenecks in communities and on campus.
Further, government grants and programs could put money out with review criteria that require effective use and management of volunteers—a quick hit that we rarely see. And Congress created a loan forgiveness program for public service, but it came with a set of impractical limits which if changed would unlock huge value. Changing these burdensome rules would unlock huge value—for the volunteer, for those served, and for the community.
I encourage this great group to address how to resolve these issues and move us towards universality.
Posted October 15, 2008, 3:03pm
I'm way out of my water here, but I wonder if there's not a natural division of volunteer skills/preferences that could be pursued. Some volunteers want to work with people—that is, mentoring the young, working in some capacity with the elderly, tutoring, etc.—while some would prefer to work on the environment in some capacity. Others might have or want to develop the kinds of skills that would enhance aspects of the infrastructure. (I disagree with William Galston that the infrastructure problem isn't that tough; I think it needs serious attention across the board.) The first group of volunteers is building human capital, the second environmental capital, the third physical capital. I suspect the kinds of local clearinghouses that some earlier posts have referred to do this kind of skill division, but wouldn't a plan of national service have to arrange people by skill sets up front to be effective at addressing national needs?
Posted October 15, 2008, 3:15pm
A few thoughts on this excellent discussion so far. As to the idea of "universal service," I think what we need is a comprehensive voluntary service system that provides meaningful and impactful service opportunities from kindergarten through the retired years at every key life stage such that spending time in service to community and country becomes both an expectation and an opportunity as part of being an American. In addition, these service opportunities should be focused on using our country's greatest natural resource—our people—to address our most pressing social problems in education, the environment, fighting poverty, disaster preparedness and response, public health, and engaging with the world.
Thus, there should be service learning opportunities for children from kindergarten through 12th grade, including a "Summer of Service" rite of passage as Shirley Sagawa and others have advocated. There should be an opportunity and a challenge for all young adults ages 18-28 to spend a year or more in full-time service in either a civilian capacity through Americorps, the Peace Corps, or other voluntary groups like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, or through the military. There should be increased opportunities for college students to serve and we need to encourage more "serve study" positions and should embrace "Campuses of Service" as outlined in the ServiceNation policy proposal and the new Kennedy-Hatch bill. And there should be regular and ongoing opportunities for people to do volunteer work through their workplace—as companies like Timberland, Home Depot, Target, Bank of America, Deloitte and Touche, and many, many, many others are providing—and also through faith-based institutions and civic groups. And then, as Will mentions, and as the AARP, Experience Corps and others are pushing, there should be more opportunities for people to serve in their "retired" or "encore" years, including a new Boomer corps.
This new comprehensive service system could usher in a new "era of big citizenship" to help replace the era of big government. We need to look to and challenge our citizens to get involved in meaningful ways to address our most pressing challenges. For every single challenge our country faces—we must ask ourselves—what role can citizens play in meeting this challenge alongside new partnerships between the government, private and non-profit sectors?
The outlines of this new system and its foundation already exist in the country thanks to strong bi-partisan Presidential and Congressional Leadership over the past twenty years. It now needs to be scaled up through both increased federal resources as envisioned in the new Kennedy-Hatch bill, but also matching funds from private sector philanthropy and leadership and new commitments by University Presidents, CEO's, faith-based leaders and others.
Posted October 15, 2008, 3:20pm
As for the infrastructure—there are more than 4,000 nonprofits that have been part of AmeriCorps, and many of them—including Teach For America, City Year, Public Allies, YouthBuild, Habitat for Humanity, Citizen Schools, National Student Partnerships, Jumpstart, Experience Corps, Points of Light Institute and Hands On, and many, many others in the Corps Network as well—are ready to scale and provide the infrastructure needed to provide more meaningful and high impact service opportunities. The real genius of AmeriCorps is that it isn't one federal government program. Rather it is the federal government setting overall standards, and then providing financial resources—which need to be matched and two-thirds of which are awarded through competition—to organizations in the voluntary sector at the national, state and local level.
Similarly, under John Bridgeland's leadership, the USA Freedom Corps was designed to build off of the existing infrastructure in the country and to facilitate and encourage public-private partnerships.
And as envisioned in the new Kennedy-Hatch bill, we need to provide some capacity building resources through the new Volunteer Generation Fund, to groups to be able to recruit, train and manage volunteers. The infrastructure challenge can be met if we systematically and thoughtfully scale up more opportunities for national and community service.
Posted October 15, 2008, 3:51pm
Bill Galston's comments about volunteer clearinghouses, community infrastructure and Michelle Nunn are all right on point. Michelle could add a valuable perspective here. In the ServiceNation 10-point plan, and the Kennedy-Hatch legislation, is a new Volunteer Generation Fund to provide exactly this kind of support for existing and future volunteer centers, intermediaries and clearinghouses. These organizations have to be accountable for results in mobilizing more volunteers to meet needs.
Posted October 15, 2008, 4:08pm
I apologize for my absence today. I’m in Pensacola visiting our local Habitat affiliate and my hosts have had me running since the minute I hit the ground this morning. I’m pleased to see the quality of the discussion today and I’m happy to be back with you.
I want to start by going on record that Habitat for Humanity International supports the Serve America Act (Kennedy-Hatch Bill).
We are exploring possibilities to expand, but without a doubt there is a limit to demand among our 1,500 affiliates in the United States. But to your point, Will, I have to say that based on our experience there are three over-arching categories that need attention in order to grow a program such as AmeriCorps. The following are the kind of changes that would allow us to significantly scale up our participation.
Attractiveness of AmeriCorps service:
• Increase the marketing of the AmeriCorps brand;
• Provide better health insurance for members during their term of service;
• Augment the dollar amount of education award (this hasn’t been increased in 15 years);
• Allow for the transferability of education awards to children and/or grandchildren (I see a couple of you have already mentioned this point);
• Eliminate term limits so alumni can participate upon retirement.
Administrative Support to Host Programs:
• Streamline administrative requirements on host organizations—a relatively short list of nonprofits have the capacity to manage the complexity of our current AmeriCorps program;
• Increase the federal dollars available for the general operation of national service programs by host organizations;
• Provide better and more recruitment support.
Program Impact Focus:
• Revisit the limitations on member roles within host organizations, allowing for service in a wider range of positions—this might be needed in order to develop a Green Corps or Disaster Corps, both of which we support;
• Restore and provide additional funding for the AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps);
• Cultivate and provide additional funding to strengthen and support the AmeriCorps alumni network—currently 500,000 strong.
Posted October 15, 2008, 4:33pm
These are all excellent recommendations from Jonathan that come from direct experience. I concur with all of them based on my own experience with City Year and other programs.
Posted October 15, 2008, 6:00pm
The conversation has really gained traction; thanks all for very informative posts about what is happening on the ground and concrete suggestions for where to make strategic investments in enlarging service.
Two distinct pathways to universal service have emerged. One is Bill Galston's mandatory model, seconded late yesterday by David Walker. The other is the voluntary approach sketched vividly by Alan, John, Bridge and others.
Both options are expensive. In order for a mandatory system to be seen as fair, it would have to enroll a big chunk of the youth cohort, probably a million volunteers or more. On the voluntary side, Obama has proposed spending $3.5 billion more on service and McCain has endorsed the Kennedy-Hatch bill, the price tag of which escapes me but isn't trivial. Jonathan Reckford's ideas for making AmeriCorps more attractive, which I mostly support, would raise costs further. All this underscores the point made by Rosabeth and Steve that we have to invest in high value service, and need more rigorous evaluation of what activities really generate public returns.
So as we wrap up Day 2, some questions to consider: How can the next President make the case for spending more on national service, especially amid cascading short- and long-term public debts? Will he (and we) have to downsize our ambitious plans for expanding service, or could the financial crisis, which is also a kind of moral crisis, make service a more urgent national priority?
This group brings an incredible amount of hands-on experience with both the politics and actual practice of service, as well as fascinating theoretical and historical perspectives. So tomorrow I hope we can focus on what all of us can do to build public and political support for universal service.
Posted October 16, 2008, 9:00am
Let me be clear regarding my position on universal service. I believe that everyone should provide one to two years of national service but I'm not sure that a government mandated approach is feasible. I believe there are many things that the government can and should do in partnership with the not-for-profit and private sectors to maximize the number of persons who will render such service. However, we are a long way from where we need to be in this regard.
Posted October 16, 2008, 9:25am
On universal service, I do not support mandatory civilian service. When we examined this issue back in 2001, we discovered it was probably unconstitutional. However, I do believe the country needs a strong wakeup call to influence the culture, and I would support a debate around a "lottery draft"—the idea that the U.S. government would give young Americans of a certain age a choice: they could either serve in the military or elect a civilian alternative. Knowing that your number might be called would create the expectation that all young Americans should serve in some capacity. A lottery draft also would maintain the benefits of an all volunteer military. Harris Wofford has been a great advocate of this idea.
Steve's description of universal service reflects my own views well. It is about creating a culture, an expectation, and then providing a wide array of opportunities, ranging from military service to neighborly compassion, to help more Americans fulfill that expectation. And it must remain voluntary to have all of the benefits, consistent with America's traditions.
Posted October 16, 2008, 9:52pm
Many good ideas are on the table for a lifetime-of-service continuum; for focused full-time or major-time service corps that offer solutions to major national and community needs (education corps, health corps, green corps, civil defense corps, etc.); for building the AmeriCorps brand; and for service infrastructure such as volunteer clearinghouses.
As we get down to costs and tactics today, some observations:
Given the wide range of opportunities, and the wide ranges of ages involved, from children in school to young people before or after college to spare-time volunteers in the work force to seniors and those in “encore” careers of service, a mandatory program seems impossible. At which point in life? And if it is for young people, how could it possibly be justified to the public when there is no military draft? (And what happened to proposals on the table a few years ago of a military-civilian opportunity?)
It would help to clarify the goals of service. Certainly it is to create Big Citizens, as Alan says, echoing Bill Clinton, who are civically engaged for a lifetime and take responsibility for their communities, de Tocqueville-style. Certainly it is to get things done for communities, to ensure that we are green, compassionate, and help those who need help, or to solve particular problems such as the school dropout crisis, or to get all children immunized. But if young people—the 17- to 24-year-olds at or around post-high school and college age—are a target population, then another goal is leadership development and individual transformation. Some full-time service programs can do all these things, and I think we need more of those opportunities. They would be the “force multiplier” that would ensure that other forms of service occur. So those full-time and highly professional programs (that involve “volunteers” only in the sense that the full-time service is voluntarily chosen by the member) should be the centerpiece of any strategy. Expanding that is the most expensive option but the one with the highest potential leverage for the nation because of the catalytic and multiplier effects. “Give a year!” can be powerful if it is part of a professionally-run experience of high impact service and leadership development.
Posted October 16, 2008, 9:57pm
Incentives do seem expensive—if the federal government is the only one to offer them. But what about very modest incentives to encourage private philanthropy to get involved in skewing choices toward service? What if the donors to universities designate scholarships for those who serve before or during college? One model is the new City Year-Bentley University partnership which offers hefty scholarships for those who come to Bentley from a year in City Year. Employers already look favorably on Teach for America alumni; what if this is promoted more broadly for AmeriCorps alums? There are numerous incentives that the private sector can offer that do several things at once: They channel philanthropy, they open big opportunities for full-time service alumni thereby encouraging more to serve, AND they engage the private sector in a more active way.
I also believe that we are missing something if we do not put corporate service opportunities on the table. The Hands-On community not only has corporate sponsors but also involves teams from companies as part of the companies’ employee programs. IBM’s pioneering new Corporate Service Corps trains teams of some of IBM’s best people to perform full-time service on the ground for a month and follow up afterwards—an enormous contribution of the best talent. People who serve through companies help influence corporate philanthropy, become Big Citizens themselves, send their kids to TFA or City Year, and might be in John Gompert’s Experience Corps.
Posted October 16, 2008, 9:59am
Finally, we need cultural transformation to make any service expansion work. That will not take place in a private conversation between nonprofits and a federal program. For that we need every institution involved in promoting service and seeing what role they can and should play: corporations, universities, industry associations. So the next President could organize a movement, getting commitments. The two precedents are America’s Promise right before and after the Presidents’ Summit in Philadelphia, and, before that, the late-and-much-missed Eli Segal’s second big organizing accomplishment, the Welfare to Work Partnership. When the President of the United States does not simply support legislation or hand out awards once a year but convenes and requests commitments, a movement can take off.
The moment is right. I believe we are on the right side of history.
Posted October 16, 2008, 10:13am
I think Will poses the most important question—what will happen to national service in the next Administration?
Both Sens. McCain and Obama have been strong and vocal supporters of national service. In each case, the support seems genuine—deeply connected to the experiences and fundamental beliefs that each man brings to the campaign and to a potential presidency. In this respect, the prospects for national service seem promising.
But we are entering a period of profound budgetary limitations. No one in the country is more articulate on this matter than David Walker—his presentations are convincing and chilling. So what are the true prospects for national service in this budgetary context?
While the budget realities are surely sobering, it is equally true that we are in a time of profound need—in education, in energy conservation and greening the economy, in combating poverty and creating opportunity, in helping the ever-increasing numbers of older Americans to continue to live healthy and independent lives. In each case, human talent is an essential part of the equation. And national service, properly organized and focused, can be one important way to recruit and deploy that human talent.
Though neither candidate is really ready to say it, for understandable reasons, it seems clear that we are likely entering a period of some sacrifice. The people are probably ahead of the candidates in recognizing this. And while the candidates don’t want to say so in the course of a hotly contested campaign, each of them is probably well situated to ask the American people to taken an active role in meeting the challenges we face. I would expect that after the election, either McCain or Obama would be pretty straight with the American people about the need for everyone to play a role in helping the country climb out of our current hole. There are likely to be many expressions of that sacrifice/participation, and it is in that context that I believe national service can actually be a central part of either a McCain or an Obama administration.
When national service is part of a president’s core message, part of his overall strategy for governing and meeting challenges, then it will move from the periphery of the national debate to a central role. And while the cost of large-scale national service is expensive compared to the current level of investment, it is miniscule in comparison with all of the various investments currently being discussed. If national service is seen as an “investment” in meeting challenges and developing an active citizenry, then the cost can be seen as part of the recovery plan, instead of a costly nicety.
I think that we may be approaching that moment. I hope so.
Posted October 16, 2008, 10:26am
To Rosabeth's second point on corporate service opportunities, why not add unions—particularly in the building trades—to the mix? Persuade them to channel their apprenticeship programs toward attacking infrastructure shortfalls. This could be part of the cultural transformation she mentioned in Part 3, a way of bringing all the parties to the table around the goal of service.
Posted October 16, 2008, 10:37am
As regards Will's questions for this morning, a few thoughts.
I believe that with the economic crisis the country is now facing, while also dealing with wars in two countries where the burden of great sacrifice is falling exclusively on the tremendously dedicated and talented men and women of our Armed Forces and their families, we need now more than ever a strong call and program for dramatically expanding opportunities for national and community service. The argument for such a program has only become stronger with the economic crisis and growing needs facing our country.
Fortunately, we know that the next President of the United States, whether it be Sen. McCain or Obama, is committed to issuing that call and I believe that the American people will answer that call in very dramatic numbers from Millenials to Boomers—even more so now with these tough times, as people greatly desire a chance to come together, serve together and work together to meet growing needs. Many understand that we need to recapture America's tradition of service and sacrifice that has led us through tough times before—from the citizen soldiers who founded America, to the Greatest Generation, to those who answered Kennedy's call to Ask Not.
Posted October 16, 2008, 10:43pm
The ServiceNation policy proposal, which was put together over nine months, in a collaborative effort of more than 40 organizations and people with decades and decades of experience in national and community service, very ably facilitated by John Bridgeland, set goals of getting to 100 million Americans volunteering annually and one million Americans in full and part-time national service by 2020. That agenda has been endorsed by more than 100 national organizations that reach 100 million Americans. And I think those are strong and good goals for our country and that perhaps we need to work to reach them even sooner than 2020 given the tough times we are in.
The Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act will get America to 250,000 people in national service while also providing for significantly expanded opportunities for volunteering through a volunteer generation fund, tax incentives to private sector companies which provide employee service opportunities, incentives for colleges and more. Both Sens. McCain and Obama are original co-sponsors of that bill, so one of them will be pushing it as President, while the other can join Sens. Kennedy and Hatch in a bi-partisan effort to get that bill passed hopefully in the early months of a new Congress.
We need a stepped-up effort for national and community service even more now as there will be significantly more needs in our country as people deal with very tough economic times. We need to call upon our citizens to help meet those needs and we need to provide meaningful and structured opportunities for them to do so, as the Kennedy-Hatch bill does.
As Harris Wofford often reminds all of us, during the Depression, FDR set a goal of 500,000 people in the CCC and they met that goal within a few years starting from scratch. And the CCC provided people with jobs while conserving and preserving our environment and also building the skills and esteem of those who participated.
In addition, national service programs—because they require matching funds from private philanthropy—are an excellent and cost-effective use of government resources.
These are some of the arguments that the next President of the United States—and all of us who believe in this idea for our country—can use as we push for a new era of service.
Posted October 16, 2008, 10:50am
Rosabeth is right on with all of her ideas in these posts. In particular she is correct that we need a service—led by the next President, but joined by leaders and citizens from all sectors—in addition to new service legislation. The foundation for this movement—from the private sector, to university presidents, to governors and mayors, to faith-based leaders, military leaders, civic leaders, social entrepreneurs and more—has already been laid. We now need to take it to scale.
One other thought building upon Rosabeth's ideas. The next President of the United States should, very early on in his administration, ask all of the living ex-Presidents and his rival in this election to join him at the White House to stand together in issuing a new call to service—a 21st Century version of "Uncle Sam Wants You" and he should enlist all of the ex-Presidents and his rival in promoting this effort in a spirit of strong bi-partisanship and service to country. They all have very strong records on service and should be utilized in this effort to unite the country around this cause.
Posted October 16, 2008, 11:04am
Of course I love Alan’s posts—no one is more passionate or articulate about national service.
Here, to me, is the challenge:
Can national service and volunteer action move from nice to necessary, from peripheral to central, from an add-on to essential?
One key, as mentioned by various commenters, has to do with the approach of the next president.
But let me introduce another challenge that may be behind the historic treatment and role of national service, and that is this: what do leaders really think of those people who John Bridgeland identifies as the greatest potential for service—the millenials and boomers?
I fear that the lack of seriousness about national service in part reflects an attitude about young people and people who have finished their midlife careers. Both groups are marginalized, both are seen as somehow out of the mainstream, both have a quality of “otherness” —they are somehow not “us.” So we talk about asking those people to step up through national service, but do people really take their talents, their idealism, their energy seriously? Will we assign them critical roles in society? Will we ask them to do the hard and essential tasks? And will we do that through national service? I wonder.
If folks aren’t really serious about what young people and not so young people can do to solve problems and in some respects lead our nation, then national service will always be on the margins along with the people it engages.
Posted October 16, 2008, 11:22am
Those of us who aspire to move towards universality, but not through government mandates, still understand that there is a role for government and its leaders—local, state and federal.
Of course, leadership and rhetoric both help. And government leaders themselves should model service in their own lives—mentoring, tutoring, community work, or some other meaningful activity.
In addition, we should look in every instance at how existing government programs can be reorganized to allow funding for volunteer infrastructure and utilization. We should also carefully look at all relevant government programs and insist that if they are not showing results, they should be reevaluated. That reevaluation should include whether those funds, or some portion of them, should be available to social entrepreneurs who deliver value through leveraging volunteers.
Take Head Start as an example—why not take the bottom 20% of Head Start programs, those found to be poorly performing, and instill competition to change the process to one that rewards organizations that use volunteers? How can we ask for new dollars for service, which of course is justified, without insisting first that government puts its existing funds, as relevant, to better use?
Posted October 16, 2008, 11:28am
John makes excellent points here, as he did in his earlier posts. I think that one key here is for both the Millenials and Boomers to express their desire to serve in strong numbers.
We are very likely to see an unprecedented turnout of young people in this next election so perhaps, hopefully, our political leaders will start to take them more seriously as they are a growing force. Hopefully that energy post-election can be channeled into the Millennials saying they are ready to serve.
Similarly, the Boomers, who generally have not been a shy generation about their views, need to speak up and express their interest in serving as well. There are so many Boomers that I know who don't want to retire in the traditional sense, and want opportunities to serve, as John's organization, Experience Corps and Civic Ventures are leading on so powerfully.
John is absolutely correct when he says we need to move from being "nice" to being vital.
And as Rosabeth argues, this movement needs to be both top down and bottom up. Grass tops and grass roots.
Posted October 16, 2008, 11:31am
I like how John Bridgeland phrased his views on universal service—that is, create a culture and expectation of service and provide a spectrum of opportunities through which individuals can engage.
As John Gomperts just posted, there is a unique opportunity for the next president to call our citizenry to action. This nation’s current economic woes have increased fear and anxiety. A call to service can be a rallying point to move people from fear to positive action that can restore pride and a sense of unity in America. FDR’s New Deal programs and World War II helped to galvanize this country out of the Great Depression. This required a sacrifice and commitment of the individual to meet needs greater than the self. I believe a similar momentum can build around engaging our communities to address the compelling problems facing our society. National Service programs provide a powerful vehicle. I suggest that National Service has to be hard wired as an integral tool in the nation’s economic recovery—perhaps as an innovative housing recovery program.
In times of crisis, the National Guard has been activated to answer the president’s call to action. It’s cheaper than engaging a full-time military force. Can we invest more fully in a civilian corps that has a similar social mandate with similar benefits and protections as the National Guard? A National Service corps can be used to help alleviate the burden of the financial crisis by providing financial literacy, education, house repairs, etc. to support struggling families or individuals.
Although the government is an important piece of the overall solution, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful efforts and resources available through partnerships with faith communities.
Additionally, we need to leverage private sector dollars to support these efforts. Rosabeth outlines in her recent posts some excellent examples.
Posted October 16, 2008, 11:14am
Perhaps I am naïve here, but I think a significant part of moving from “nice” to vital is to concretely show that service directly addresses real needs and to move away from service that looks and feels cosmetic. Part of the discounting of the value of service has as much to do with the type of service performed as those who are performing it. To return for a moment to the earlier infrastructure discussions, we really need to consider how to ensure that whatever additional resources that are provided to scale national service are directed to those organizations with a proven track record of both the impact on the problems they are attempting to address and the management capacity to scale rapidly and effectively. Enabling a vastly expanded group of Americans—of all ages—to experience rigorous, meaningful service will not only transform their lives but the general discussion about what service is and is not. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to catalyze such a discussion but we must not squander it by being less than strategic about who we engage in what is hopefully a first phase of truly national service.
Posted October 16, 2008, 1:46pm
Before time runs out on this excellent conversation, let me offer a specific list of ideas for the new president. We have all written in one way or another about the kind of presidential leadership that will signal that national service and volunteer action are truly a central strategy and governing philosophy. Here is a list of five ways that the new president could send that signal very powerfully and prompt a real response from citizens and institutions.
1. Make a call to service part of the inaugural address. (In his new book, The Politics of Progress, John Podesta suggests inaugural speech language for Sen. Obama that puts citizens at the center of problem-solving.)
2. Tell the congressional leadership that passage of the Kennedy-Hatch legislation is a top priority. Enlist the losing presidential candidate in helping to pass this legislation as a display of comity, working together to get something done, and bipartisan action.
3. Echo the strong call to service in the State of the Union speech. Instead of Joe the Plumber, let’s have Tom from Teach for America, Cindy from City Year, Peter from Public Allies, Hank from Habitat, and Evelyn from Experience Corps in the box as examples of the type of high-impact citizen service that the new president applauds and intends to grow.
4. Include money for an expansion of national service and volunteer action in the new budget.
5. At the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, make a specific call to the governors or make this kind of citizen action a bipartisan approach to problem-solving, enlist their help, be ready to share leadership of (and credit for) this initiative with them.
There are no doubt other ideas about the way a new president could move forward, but if the new president did all of this in his first month in office, it would be totally clear to others in government, to the media, to institutions and, most important, to the American people that national service and volunteer service are truly at the heart of his approach to governing, and that he is asking everyone to join in this effort. Together, these steps would constitute a real, unmistakable and powerful call to action.
Posted October 16, 2008, 2:47pm
Moving from “nice” to “vital” is important. Tuesday we touched on the importance of guaranteeing the quality of the experience. I believe these two points are tied together. Tracy-Elizabeth’s call to focus on “real needs” and her emphasis on the need for volunteers to “experience rigorous, meaningful service” are spot on.
While not wanting to appear self-serving, I believe Habitat is an example of a group that has a proven track record in this area. The AmeriCorps and VISTA volunteers serving with Habitat affiliates consistently rate their experience very highly. I don’t think our work around shelter is more important than others’ work in other areas, but I do think we are able to give the members very challenging work that is rewarding while they learn a new transferable skill at the same time. I put our experience forward as a model to be examined as I think there are elements of it that could be replicated by others.
Posted October 16, 2008, 3:00pm
My apologies for my absence from the conversation—I've been traveling around a lot today and haven't been near a computer, but I've been following the discussion and enjoying the direction of the conversation. I'd like to hear others' thoughts on a short list of ways the next president could send a powerful signal and prompt a real response from citizens and institutions. I would also ask: in addition to the NGA and the presidential runner-up, what other leaders or groups should the president engage?
Posted October 16, 2008, 4:22pm
I do not believe that a simply hortatory approach will work. The fundamental question is whether national and community service is like jury duty—to which all are exposed in their capacity as citizens, whether or not all are in fact called—or whether it’s voluntary and optional. The actual number of people required to serve must of course reflect fiscal and institutional realities. It’s the principle that matters. And I’m sure this approach could be shaped to survive constitutional challenge. I may be one of the few remaining Americans who prefers duty to “compassion.”
Posted October 16, 2008, 4:42pm
Bill—I hear you and I am very sympathetic to your view of “duty” rather than “compassion.” Service and volunteer action need to not be synonymous with noblesse oblige, but with something more powerful and compelling.
That said, I think we also probably agree that we don’t want to have people think the same thing about national service as they think about jury duty or getting your car inspected. Those civic obligations do not have a very uplifting quality—most people avoid them till the last minute and often beyond.
So while I hear and applaud your call to duty, I wonder how we can accomplish that and avoid the negative feelings that most people have about civic obligations.
I think that somewhere in the space of personal responsibility matched with ubiquitous opportunity is what will bring millions of people to service and high impact volunteering. Think of the way that recycling has become a norm through a feeling of personal responsibility made actionable by ready and easy opportunity. Can we do something similar with service and volunteering?
Posted October 16, 2008, 4:55pm
Our nation's finances are deteriorating, and we face large and growing deficits and debt burdens under our current path, based on historical tax levels. Tax incentives represent backdoor spending and have an adverse effect on our nation's "bottom line." We must gain control over our fiscal future, and that will require a relative reduction in direct and backdoor spending over time.
At the same time, we need to revitalize our democracy and rebuild our societal bonds. As I have stated previously, I believe in universal service but I don't believe that a mandate is feasible. So how about expanding opportunities and providing an incentive in the form of a penalty if you don't meet the targeted service requirement (e.g., 1-2 years of service, possibly depending on the nature of the service)?
Specifically, what if individuals had to pay a modest surtax or pay a modest penalty in their social insurance benefits or subsidies if they did not meet the requirements? That would serve as an incentive and help rather than hurt our nation's "bottom line."
Posted October 16, 2008, 5:12pm
Somewhere between "volunteer if the spirit moves you" and Bill Galston's sterner call to duty lies the idea of civic reciprocity. It posits that public benefits ought to be tied whenever possible to the obligation to put something back in the common pot. That's why the GI bill has always been my polestar in the debate over how to define and structure universal service. My old mentor Charlie Moskos was fond of saying that in the federal student aid programs, the US had created "a GI bill without the GI." In the original DLC proposal, we called for making student aid contingent on the willingness to serve. This approach underscores service's character as a civic obligation while creating incentives for large numbers of people to serve. And because we're already spending that money anyway, it wouldn't be hugely expensive.
Posted October 16, 2008, 5:18pm
The point about the jury duty analogy is that while most people wouldn’t volunteer for it, the overwhelming majority of those who are called regard it as a positive experience that reinforces their faith in democracy, the rule of law, … and their fellow citizens (the jurors, that is, not the criminals). I see no compelling reason to believe that 18-year-olds picked in a national service lottery would respond differently. And again, it’s the message the law encodes that matters most. If we believe, as I do, that service is a duty, we should think hard about shaping our laws to reflect that.
Posted October 16, 2008, 5:39pm
I like Will's approach a lot—make institutional changes in core policies that effect the sea change. I'm a big advocate of connecting the duty to serve (and I agree with Bill that it should be talked about as a responsibility, consistent with our country's protection and advancement of rights) with benefits such as student aid. I do not think that we can create a mandatory system, however, that will make it through the political process. Interestingly, when I used to speak to college students all over the country, I would ask them what they would do, especially in seminars where they were really studying the issue. Almost universally, they came out against mandatory service for all sorts of pragmatic reasons. Conversely, they were wildly creative in generating ideas about institutional changes and policies that could be fostered to engage more Americans to serve.
The most attractive argument to House Republicans, who were otherwise hostile to AmeriCorps, was that we already give billions in Pell Grants and ask nothing in return for those benefits, while AmeriCorps gives education awards in exchange for a year of national service. Obviously, there is a big issue of only asking those who need student aid to serve, while those not needing such aid are not so tugged. Perhaps the student aid could be structured in a manner where service is not a condition of the aid, but there could be loan repayment and forgiveness on the back end. Steve will have great ideas here. But I think we have to look at all of these institutional levers. David is very creative in looking at the flip side, although I'm not crazy about the idea of penalizing people into service. I am taken by his idea to ensure that we are mindful of the nation's finances and how service policies can work in tandem, not against, reducing our debt burdens.
I also think it is the attractiveness of meeting real needs that lifts people out of their seats to serve. We are seeing this in our malaria work. Because people see they can have a direct effect on saving lives, they are engaged—literally in the millions—in helping our cause to end malaria deaths in Africa by 2015. What are the comparable needs on the home front in which citizens can make a big difference with their engagement? I think there are many and the next President should repeatedly call the nation to help meet those needs in the context of nearly every speech. Hortatory, I know, but we found that whenever the call to service was issued, as long as there were concrete opportunities to satisfy the interest, Americans responded in droves. That is the good news, I think.
Posted October 16, 2008, 5:53pm
Another potential powerful incentive for national service would be for America to establish the "National Service American Dream Account" program. This is basically connecting the proposals for a "baby bond" with a requirement to do service to earn the benefit.
It would work like this. The Government would put into a savings account along the lines of today’s 529 college savings accounts either $5,000 at birth for every baby born in America, or $500 a year every year up to ten years for any family that matches that amount for any child up to age 18. (For very low income families the matching requirements could be adjusted.)
The money in that account would be invested, but the young person would not be able to access the government's portion of the investment and any returns that accrue on it until they have completed one year of full-time national service—either military or civilian. In addition, the money in that account would be reserved for "American Dream" opportunities such as going to college, becoming an entrepreneur—either social or private sector—a down payment on a home, or savings for retirement.
At traditional rates of return of 7%—I know in today's market that may be a little suspect—$5,000 at birth, with no additional investment at all becomes close to $19,000 by age 19. With an additional $500 per year invested by that young person's family it grows to $38,000 by 19, with an additional $1,000 per year it grows to $58,000, and with an additional $1,500 per year—about $125 a month or $3 a day—it grows to $78,000 a year by age 19.
If a young person leaves the money in the account until age 65, it grows to $406,000 per year and with just an additional $500 per year it grows to more than $1,000,000. That is the magic of compound interest.
This proposal would be a powerful bookend to social security—that is, give every young person in America a leg up and a real shot at earning the American Dream through performing national service. It would instill a culture of savings and investment, something that David so powerfully and correctly argues we need to return to while connecting that to a renewed culture of service. It would also help our economic growth by hopefully moving us from a nation with a negative savings rate to one with a positive savings rate.
Various "baby bond" programs with matching fund incentives have already been piloted and shown to work even with very low income families. This proposal would add a service requirement, which I think is very important—that way, people are not getting "something for nothing" but rather earning it.
I co-authored an article on this proposal for the American Interest Magazine last January for anyone who is interested.
Posted October 16, 2008, 6:00pm
Alan, how do you propose to pay for the "National Service America Dream Account" without adding to our growing "National Fiscal Nightmare"? In fact, paying for it is not enough. We're in a $55-$56 trillion hole! We've fallen in and we need to climb out!
Posted October 16, 2008, 6:10pm
Regrettably, our discussion will have to end there. As our time together draws to a close, I want to express my gratitude for your thoughtful and provocative comments over the past three days. The exchanges have been rich and informative. Most importantly, we have identified some concrete, practical solutions for moving the issue of national service forward.
Posted October 17, 2008, 1:24pm
David, you are correct about the need for fiscal responsibility, and the need to confront our tremendous budgetary challenges. And you are providing extraordinary and important leadership on this issue. I suggest the National Service Dream Account idea as one possible way to get to a more comprehensive national service system over time with a strong incentive structure, that also encourages a culture of savings and investment. This system would also be a 21st century version of the GI Bill, which studies have shown returned more than seven dollars in economic benefits for every dollar invested as a result of more people going to college, starting small businesses and being able to achieve home ownership.
But, as David references, this would not be cheap. If we invested a full $5000 for every baby born, that would be about $20 billion a year. If we did $2500 per baby it would be about $10 billion a year. David knows much more about the federal budget than I do, but some possible ways to pay for this investment would include: 1. Eliminating earmarks which have risen to as much as $30 billion a year. 2. Responsibly ending the Iraq war, which is running at a minimum of $10 billion a month, and 3. Rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the top 1 percent of earners. Now the issue with each of these, is that given the size of the deficit, none of these are fully paid for either. And if we were to implement the "service bond" proposal we would need to have a way to pay for it.
It is also valuable to recognize that spending money on service is an investment that provides a good return, and actually saves money over time (think of national service as a preventive strategy: every young American helped to a college degree and a good job, or kept out of jail, by mentors, tutors and service programs, saves our society tens of thousands of dollars in prison, rehab or welfare costs, while contributing to the tax base). It is also a cost-effective way to address pressing problems. In addition to developing a more comprehensive system for national and community service that leverages both public and private investments, we also need to be looking at the overall fiscal situation of the country and coming to grips with a system that needs major reform to put our fiscal house in order.