National Service as Paid Volunteering? Uh…No.

If you’ve been considering a term of national service, keep in mind some of the biggest differences between doing a year-long term of full-time service and serving as a community volunteer.

To the uninitiated, a term of national service can seem to be “paid volunteering” because participants earn a basic living allowance. However, real differences exist, and local communities throughout the United States feel the direct impact of those differences.

Community Volunteers

From Flickr user who.log.why

From Flickr user who.log.why

Community volunteers donate their time through a nonprofit or school. They improve their communities because they can extend the human resource capacity of the places where they volunteer.

The amount of time they donate is up to them, but it’s usually part time. Some volunteers join a service project for a few hours on a single day, achieve greatness, feel good, and move on.

An organization’s part-time, longer term community volunteers may help out on sustained projects, or they may tackle shorter tasks that change from day to day.

Finally, as long as their duties are within the bounds of labor laws, the specific assignments are between community volunteers and their supervisors. Community volunteer service rarely comes under strict scrutiny for effectiveness, sustainability, and performance measures the way national service corps member positions do.

In sum, in the United States millions of community volunteers collectively devote billions of hours of their time to causes they believe in. Their contributions to social services are crucial to the operation of most nonprofit organizations and schools. Most serve on a part-time basis, often while in school, gainfully employed, or retired.

National Service Corps Members

picture-10Full-time national service is different in that participants — often called members or corps members — really dedicate all their work-day time to their service. In fact in at least two programs, members cannot hold down any work outside of their service.

National service programs in the United States include AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps*VISTA, AmeriCorps*NCCC, Teach For America, City Year, and many, many others (see the list of Corps and Coalitions in the right-hand side bar of this blog) not all of which receive funds from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).

CNCS funds—in part—most of these domestic service corps. It invests money through states, national organizations, and local communities, and that funding is leveraged through host service site matching contributions and other private donations.

Each service program is evaluated and approved at the state or federal government level before funding comes through and corps member recruitment begins. Grant proposals requesting funding for members must show performance outcomes, goals, and measurements. Corps members and their supervisors track the effectiveness of their service regularly, and supervisors write grant reports detailing corps member achievements.

Corps members initiate and lead hefty projects, on critical issues, like disaster preparedness and response, education, poverty, environment, and public safety.

Because corps members serve for a period of 10 to 12 months (or longer, if they commit to a second term) they have a chance to affect lasting, positive change in their organizations — through developing new programs, identifying and going after new sources of funding, and leveraging the efforts of millions of community volunteers.

Corps members also change their communities in permanent ways — by serving in schools, tutoring struggling kids throughout their term, consistently mentoring children of incarcerated parents, increasing the job skills of recent immigrants or high school dropouts, rebuilding communities in the wake of natural disasters, and creating access to affordable health care through local clinics and health organizations and more.

Finally national service is an investment in the corps members themselves, developing the future of public service leadership in the United States. National service corps members receive hours of targeted technical skill-building training throughout their terms. Two-thirds of AmeriCorps members followed in a longitudinal study go on to public service careers. The Eli Segal AmeriCorps Education Award has made further education possible for thousands of alumni.

The achievements of community volunteers are many and great.  The service of AmeriCorps members is closer to the equivalent of the federal government offering human resource grants to local communities to contribute in crucial capacities. It’s not paid volunteering.

Check out Tim’s post on Change/Wire, which also features video testimonials of service corps participants talk about their achievements.

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