National service must not be seen as an end but as a means to solve public problems, according to Visiting CAP Fellow Shirley Sagawa, at a CAP event Wednesday on the state of national service in the United States and how volunteering can change our country for the better. Sagawa was joined on a panel by Lester Strong, CEO of Experience Corps, and Jason Patnosh, associate vice president of the National Association of Community Health Centers and national director of the Community HealthCorps. John Podesta, CAP President and CEO, introduced the panel, and Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, moderated. The event also launched Sagawa’s new book, The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers Are Transforming America.
National service can be an important strategy for change on domestic and international levels, Podesta said, adding that the success of programs like the Peace Corps, Meals on Wheels, AmeriCorps, and Girl Scouts shows that we are “truly a service nation.”
Sagawa agreed that it is “uniquely American to roll up your sleeves and get things done.” She wrote The American Way to Change because she wanted to lift up volunteer programs that “turn good will into outcomes.” These include Teach for America, City Year, and Music National Service, to name a few. By promoting what works about these programs for volunteers, organizations, and community clients, she hopes she can prove that service is a strategy for job creation, economic growth, building social capital, and civic engagement.
Patnosh said his Community HealthCorps “is the pipeline to the future” to develop new leaders, doctors, and health service providers. One important characteristic of HealthCorps is that the volunteers are all from the communities they serve because local volunteers have better community knowledge and access. Sagawa added that there is a sense of ownership people have with their own communities to see projects through to completion.
But because these are volunteer positions, low-income people have less access to them. They cannot afford to work for free for an extended period of time, and these positions are often not advertised to them in the first place. The majority of volunteers are middle-class adults from suburbs, so programs must make volunteering more accessible to people in low-income areas, resulting in a volunteer demographics disparity, Sagawa explained.
One important source of volunteers is older adults. Strong’s Experience Corps, for example, recruits adults aged 55 and older to tutor children in reading proficiency. Many volunteer programs are youth focused to inspire youth into service, but it’s important to tap into the pool of baby boomers nearing retirement, Strong explained. Experience Corps works to re-engage those adults.
Older adults are also able to “see the whole child” because of their life experience, and they establish relationships younger volunteers cannot. Strong said Experience Corps has clear data showing their program not only increases reading proficiency but also helps volunteers stay happy, healthy, and find greater meaning in their lives. And for older adults who are not looking to retire but switch to a new industry, the program is “a pathway to develop skills that then become marketable skills,” Strong said. More than 20 hours of preservice training coupled with the hands-on tutoring “introduces them to an entire universe of opportunities in the nonprofit world,” he added.
Increased technology also helps nonprofits recruit volunteers from all walks of life, as well as managing volunteers and data to showcase programs and outcomes. Patnosh said technology lets different organizations “know about the good things going on” within their specific program area and across many volunteer organizations. And it helps nonprofit organizations take a critical look at what exists and ask themselves if what they are providing is applicable to what’s needed, Strong said.
One major problem in the nonprofit world is the high and almost immediate turnover rate of volunteers, according to Palmer. One in 10 people in the United States works in the nonprofit sector and 70 percent of nonprofits are completely volunteer run, according to Sagawa. But volunteers are often not given enough credit or credibility to stay long term. Programs like AmeriCorps, which engages Americans part time or full time, give their members lasting skills, but Sagawa urged all nonprofits to let volunteers take more responsibility so it’s clear how vital they are to the organization.
Progress should also be measured by outcomes and not just the number of volunteers in a given organization, and organizations can partner with for-profit businesses or the government to find a way to provide a financial incentive during or after volunteer work to increase the pool of applicants.
Additionally, the panelists recommended that policymakers, governments, businesses, and charitable organizations work together for a common purpose and allow room for innovation and the exchange of information because many pairs of hands, time, and compassion are needed to make a qualitative difference. Public problems can be solved by ordinary citizens “if they are called to action,” Sagawa added, and it is up to anyone who believes in change to make that call.
Books will be available for sale at the event (cash or check).