Opinion

What Obama's call to national service needs

More volunteers won't help if nonprofits aren't ready for them.

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President Obama has signed a law that will create an array of volunteer opportunities for Americans of all ages and will add 175,000 volunteers to AmeriCorps and four new national service corps programs – tripling the current number of annual AmeriCorps volunteers by 2017.

This landmark law, cosponsored by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, represents a forward-looking bipartisan effort to tap America's greatest resource – the talent, time, and entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens – at a time when the country needs it most.

But nonprofits, hit hard by the global economic slump, in many cases are not equipped to handle the coming influx of well-intentioned helpers. Thousands of organizations must scale up quickly to translate this idealism into real service to struggling communities. Otherwise, the surge in volunteers may mean thousands of good intentions and billions of dollars that don't move the dial on tough social issues.

Given the timetable of the legislation to begin in October and almost double the current number of volunteers (from 75,000 to 140,000) by the end of 2012, there's little time to waste.

First, to ensure that the solution fits the problem rather than the other way around, service corps programs should give communities a stake in and a forum for setting priorities and conveying their needs.

This can be done through regular town hall meetings, forums, or surveys. And it should then be followed by aligning volunteer placements with the specific needs of the community. This kind of process where the leadership comes from the members of the community, and the staff are accountable for adhering to the members' vision, has been proven to get results.

Second, volunteers need training that goes beyond learning how to weatherize a home or work a photocopier.

AmeriCorps should partner with nonprofits and universities to provide preservice education that grounds participants' work in the socioeconomic factors and policy processes shaping the social issues they are tackling. This training, so as not to reinvent the wheel, should take advantage of the best university-based service learning programs.

Volunteers also need ongoing guidance within organizations and structured opportunities to build competency, confidence, and credibility through meaningful assignments and chances to "own" projects. Each volunteer's knowledge, skills, and leadership potential should be directly tied to the organization's mission.

Teach for America's talent program is a great example of this. It successfully strives to expose each corps member to experiences and development opportunities that foster a lifelong commitment to addressing the root causes of inequity in the public education system.

Third, managing volunteers requires considerable staff time and energy – only more precious in the face of ongoing staff cuts. Nonprofit staff members should be given tools and support to design volunteer posts that deliver results and build capacity, not serve as a distraction.

One strong example of the kind of tools staff need comes from Citizen Schools, which has developed a pioneering approach to recruiting and orienting talent.

Developing and measuring skills will also be important. It will help mitigate some experts' concerns that the scale-up will equate to a surge in low-paid jobs that threatens the professionalism of the nonprofit sector. Plus, nonprofits that get this right will be ready for the next big influx of volunteers – retired baby boomers. This group of highly skilled individuals won't be content with stuffing envelopes and answering phones.

Finally, a major criticism of national service programs is that they are unable to convincingly demonstrate long-term positive results beyond the experience they create for volunteers. It is heartening that one of the key components of the new law is evaluation. Building and sharing evidence of volunteer impact will bolster knowledge and support for the field of public service.

A first step would be to offer organizations a concrete evaluation tool to clearly define the outcomes they are trying to achieve and to gather data to rigorously evaluate indicators of success in reaching these outcomes. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other leading grantmakers provide nonprofits with structured templates to evaluate the positive effects of their work in communities.

The current call to public service represents an enormous opportunity for communities, nonprofits, and committed citizens. Through partnerships with local universities, interns who are eager to get on-the-ground experience could implement training, as well as outcomes-based evaluation. It's a simple, but potentially effective example of how to help prepare nonprofits for the influx of volunteers.

The Volunteer Generation Fund provision in the new law is a step in the right direction. But unless we invest in the hard leadership-building and management work upfront, though, the opportunity to truly revitalize the nation may just pass us by.

Bethany Godsoe is the executive director of the Research Center for Leadership in Action at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.

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