How the Media get National Service Wrong (Sometimes)

As news media pick up stories about graduating students missing out on high-power corporate jobs and falling back on national service, some details are skewed.

Here is my rebuttal to some stories I’ve seen in the media lately about national service as a solution to college student angst about employment and loan repayment. Like this one from the Wall Street Journal, and this one from MSN Money.

A term of national service is not the same as nonprofit employment. And there’s a lot more to public service than a year of stipended national service. It’s misleading to say that when the Class of 2009 is locked out of entry level positions at huge corporations, they may opt for “nonprofit work” by joining AmeriCorps for $10,000 a year.

What’s wrong with that kind of reporting?

1. Recent coverage is perpetuating the false idea that only people rejected from business careers look into national service and nonprofit work.

Service is not the job you can get when no one else will hire you. Competition is high for national service slots. Far more people apply to most service corps than there are openings. For example, Teach For America saw 25,000 applications last year, but only needed a fraction of that to fill all its corps member openings. Chicago’s Inner City Teaching Corps has gotten five times the number of applicants than it’s had openings.

Service organizations are looking for people committed to social justice, who actually have volunteer, leadership, and issue-focused experience. People for whom a term of service is a plausible commitment, and who have something to offer communities.

And in fact, you can actually graduate from college aspiring to a national service experience or nonprofit career — because you are committed to social change, community issues, living your faith, etc. That is, if people who are mentoring you can educate you about these kinds of opportunities.

Mid-career professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to earning their companies a profit are often surprised to find how tricky it is to break into the nonprofit sector. While business skills are valuable in running nonprofit organizations, and many nonprofit careerists earn MBAs, the nonprofit sector is not the repository of people who didn’t make it as capitalists.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being a capitalist.

2. A term of national service is not an alternate career path or a nonprofit job.

A term of service is usually a year or two — it’s not exactly an alternative career path. It’s short term. After your term you can decide what to do next — you’ll have more experience than you did as a college senior, but your options in life are still as wide open.

While most U.S.-based service programs are 501(c)(3) nonprofits themselves, corps members are supported by a range of host sites, not just nonprofits. Corps members teach in public schools and serve in local government agencies, as well as in nonprofit organizations.

Nonprofit careers do exist — and national service is a great launching point. To understand nonprofit careers better, check out the Guide to Nonprofit Careers.

3. Finally, one of the biggest misunderstandings people—including reporters—have is that nonprofit = no money. That nonprofit work is volunteer work and doesn’t count as a “real job” that can support a person or family.

At we have had to work hard, and will continue to work hard, to get people — college students, career counselors, parents, mid-career professionals — to let go of certain notions they have of nonprofit employment.

Saying that college grads will settle for a $10,000/year “job” in the nonprofit sector because of the loan repayment benefit implies that nonprofits pay poverty wages to staff. That’s a serious issue for the nonprofit sector wanting to beef up its workforce and leadership pipeline (PDF) in time for baby boomers to retire. And it’s irresponsible journalism.

From the document debunking the top-ten myths about the nonprofit sector:

The term “nonprofit” refers to the 501(c) tax code in the United States. Non-governmental organization, or NGO, and “charity” are the common terms used outside the United States. Revenues generated by nonprofit organizations go back into programs that serve the organizations’ mission. There are no stockholders receiving annual financial dividends, and employees do not receive a bonus at the end of a good year. According to Independent Sector, $670 billion are earned by nonprofit organizations annually, and one in twelve Americans work in the nonprofit sector.

To learn more about the nonprofit sector, read Chapter One of the Guide to Nonprofit Careers. To learn more about nonprofit salaries, check out these free, online resources: Occupational Outlook Handbook,, and (use the term “non-profit,” with a hyphen).

To learn more about service opportunities, check out the Corps and Coalitions list on the right-hand sidebar of this blog.

David Eisner’s recent speech about the need for national service explains its value from the perspective of governing healthy communities during an economic downturn.