Skip to content

In Defense of AmeriCorps and the Serve America Act

May 21, 2010

By Kate Goyette

Recently, Blue Avocado, a blog I read often which offers practical, provocative, and fun food-for-thought for nonprofits posted an article by Rick Cohen titled Volunteerism Public Policies Can Hurt Nonprofits where he does a great job of, I think, really criticizing the work of AmeriCorps members, and challenges the funding of the Serve America Act which gives $1.15 billion to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) for volunteer community capacity-building in addition to increasing the amount of AmeriCorps members to 250,000.  He was a foundation-paid consultant to some of the designers of the national AmeriCorps program in its beginning stages under the Clinton Administration, so he knows his stuff, but I find the article both a bit truthful and offensive.  Truthful because one of his points is that volunteers may be displacing paid workers in nonprofits, but offensive because AmeriCorps members are not volunteers or employees.  Rather, they are well-trained, supplementary members who benefit nonprofits in a different way than staff members.

As an AmeriCorps Alumni of Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), I would like to contest the four main points in his article as follows:

  • Nonprofit work often requires high skill levels and significant experience, and should be paid appropriately if the work is to be sustainable.

I do believe that nonprofit work requires a high skill level along with significant experience.  The AmeriCorps VISTA and State and National trainings really depend on the training offered by the organization who receives the members.  In my VISTA experience, I received extensive training not only from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), but also from the organization I served with.  Additionally, I do believe that nonprofit workers should be paid appropriately for their work, but AmeriCorps members are neither “volunteers” nor “workers.” They are instead members of a community service program.  They make a sacrifice to give one year of service to their country – it is an alternative to serving in the military.  AmeriCorps members themselves come from many different backgrounds – some from low, middle and high income.  Programs offer excellent health benefits, an Education Award of $5,350, and training in addition to room and board for some programs like NCCC.

  • There is not a shortage of volunteers (63 million volunteers by one estimate), but rather a flood of people looking for places where they can be helpful. In many cases these are people who really do want to help, but lack the skills and training that would make them valuable contributors.

I don’t believe there is a shortage of volunteers in our country, especially in these current economic times, but I know from experience working with many different nonprofits that regular volunteers come and go very quickly and do not come to the organization pre-trained as AmeriCorps members do. Furthermore, no matter how many of volunteers there are, they are very hard to hold on to at times. Whereas an AmeriCorps member is committing a full year of service to his or her country and will show up when other volunteers may not.

  • Volunteers do displace nonprofit workers in lower-paid positions, at least according to the January/February 2010 Journal of Economics and Business.

Since AmeriCorps members are not volunteers, I do not believe they were counted in this study.  A volunteer is someone who performs a service for free, with no legal bindings or attachments.  An AmeriCorps member, on the other hand, receives a stipend, benefits, training, Education Award and sometimes more.

While I understand that this point is concerned with AmeriCorps members taking over the sector, I find plenty more nonprofits seeking a REAL volunteer, not an AmeriCorps member, to perform a staff-level job for free as an intern. That is something that should concern everyone involved in the nonprofit sector more than AmeriCorps members. Why? Because AmeriCorps members act as supplementary workers to the nonprofit they serve with. For example, if an organization is requesting VISTAs to aid them in implementing a program, they have three years to receive those VISTAs because VISTA, like the Peace Corps, is designed to be sustainable.  This means that by the end of the three years, the nonprofit needs to educate community members and leaders to take on the roles of the VISTAs. Often this allows nonprofits to receive more funding for the work they have accomplished and can lead to the hiring of VISTAs.

In the State and National and NCCC programs, members perform direct service work which is similar to what a volunteer does, except that AmeriCorps members are so well-trained that they supervise volunteer activities at school tutoring centers, home building and re-building worksites, environmental organizations, state parks and disaster sites.

The nonprofit networking and connections offered by all three main AmeriCorps programs are many. I have many friends who have benefited from these connections and now work for nonprofits they served with.

Lastly, the work of organizations that have State and National and NCCC members serve with them would still go on if they did not have them, but the volunteers at the organizations are much better trained because they have a constant supervisor, and the nonprofits can often extend their programs to include extra projects which otherwise would not have been started.

  • Stipended volunteer “jobs” do not offer enough for a person to live on, and contribute to the “casualization of jobs” in human services.

AmeriCorps community service member needs to be looked at as that – a service member. The member receives a poverty-level wage because for one year they are going to live at the income level of those they serve. Personally, it is a humbling experience and really put things in perspective for me in addition to making it clear to me that I wanted to work as a staff member with a nonprofit organization in the future.

Programs like NCCC and VISTA’s Campus Compact (among others) also include room and board which makes it easier for someone who can’t afford to participate in an AmeriCorps program.

There is nothing casual about AmeriCorps programs. They are well-trained people who serve with organizations in a supplemental manner.  If anything, what we really need to be concerned with here is the rise of unpaid internships that are actually jobs. Perhaps we should also take a look at the effect of contract workers with nonprofits as well. It’s no secret that nonprofits often struggle to get by, but blaming this on AmeriCorps service programs is not the way to go.

Kate Goyette is an aspiring volunteer manager/communications manager for nonprofits and that I am also the author of a blog titled Your Green Guide (http://yourgreenguide.blogspot.com/) that helps people learn new ways to live more sustainably.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2010 3:19 pm

    I have to agree with him on one point- AmeriCorps volunteers should be paid better to increase sustainability. I served in AmeriCorps State first and then VISTA second, and only during my VISTA training did I hear that I was being paid at the poverty line so I could better identify with my constituants (while my VISTA work doesn’t even have to do with alleviating poverty, but rather increasing volunteerism). When I was trained for AC State, they just said, yeah we know it’s not a lot, but them’s the breaks. I found it offensive to be told at PSO that my low pay was so I could identify with poverty better. That just assumes that people were well off before they came to the program. I was like, thanks I’ve never made more than 15K in the 5 years out of college, but you can pay me dirt so I know what it’s like to be broke.

    I value AmerCorps for lots of reasons, but in my job search I see it taking the place of entry level jobs in non-profits. That’s just the nature of the beast. I don’t want to do away with AmeriCorps, but I don’t think it does anyone any favors to deny that it’s an unintended consequence of the program.

  2. Megan Hill permalink
    May 21, 2010 4:11 pm

    Kate,

    Nice points, well said. I think it’s also worth mentioning that many (if not all) AmeriCorps positions are entry-level, which require a lot less skill and training and experience than upper-level nonprofit management positions. You don’t have AmeriCorps (or volunteers) coming in and kicking out executive directors or development directors. What you have is a sustainable way for nonprofits to receive hard-working employees they otherwise could not afford to hire and for civic-minded people to get that ever-elusive entry-level position. It’s a great system.

    Many nonprofits I have come in contact with would not be able to function without their AmeriCorps members. They simply wouldn’t exist, or wouldn’t exist in the same capacity. That position and the services provided would disappear, and ultimately less work would get done.

    Look, if a nonprofit can accomplish the same thing with free labor (whether that be a volunteer or AmeriCorps) as they can with a paid staff person, that’s brilliant for them. NPOs have to ring the most out of every dollar they have. If doing so makes them less effective, well, that’s one poorly managed nonprofit and shame on them.

    -Megan

  3. Megan Hill permalink
    May 21, 2010 4:15 pm

    Actually, I have heard of all-volunteer organizations. If those people (generally retired folks, in my experience) find meaning and if the organization can sustain itself that way, good for them. I don’t seen an issue there.

  4. Kate Goyette permalink
    May 8, 2011 6:11 pm

    Thanks for the comments! Sorry it has taken me…almost a year to get back to you! I’ve been a little out of the writing habit for AmeriCorps Alums to say the least.

    But, I do agree with both points you have. Kate, I do think it would be a great idea to increase the AmeriCoprs stipend so that more people are able to participate. It really is only available to people within a certain income bracket, if you are able to have support from your family in some way or if you live with many, many roommates. Back in 2004, when John Kerry ran for president, one idea of his that I thought was really great is requiring all graduating seniors from high school to perform 2 years of volunteerism – very much like AmeriCorps in exchange for free college tuition. Just imagine how amazingly vibrant our public sector would be then!

    Megan, I think you made great points as well. I have also worked for and volunteered with nonprofits that really do depend on the extra (and inexpensive) labor that a VISTA or other AmeriCorps position offers. Not to mention, AmeriCorps members tend to be extremely creative and passionate about what they do, and that breath of fresh air can do wonders for a small, overworked nonprofit organization.

    In service,
    Kate

Trackbacks

  1. Holy Cow « volunteerme

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: