Who Is A Volunteer?

The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) is close to becoming a questionable jobs program — aided and abetted by financially-strapped nonprofit organizations. What’s the evidence for this provocative assertion? Let’s start with some history.

The original federal agency focused on volunteering was ACTION. ACTION (not an acronym, but possibly the greatest federal agency name ever) was started in 1971 by the Nixon Administration and was called the “domestic Peace Corps.” It brought several programs under one roof, including the Peace Corps (which withdrew soon after), Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions, and the National Center for Student Volunteering.

Note the frequent use of the word “volunteer.” One of ACTION’s special projects with long-lasting impact was the funding of what were called “Governor’s Offices of Volunteer Services,” rewarding those states wanting to support community volunteering.

At that time, both the Peace Corps and VISTA were designed as full-time, one-to-two-year, volunteer opportunities, supported by a cash living allowance. The money was in no way meant as remuneration for time, but enabled people to serve regardless of their financial situation. Without the living allowance, only the rich could afford to give up a year or two of earning a salary. Further, VISTA participants were not permitted to hold any other job, paid or not, during their term of service. The intent was to be available to the community as necessary.

America had other models from which to choose. The Civilian Conservation Corps started during the Great Depression — with some vestiges still around in some states today — providing federally-funded employment for thousands to build bridges, decorate public buildings, clear parks, and more. Jobs Corps was founded to give job training and paying work to young people who needed alternatives to the military, prison, or college. VISTA and Peace Corps were focused on willing service.

The CNCS (note the absence of the word volunteer) was created by the Clinton Administration in 1993. One of its first decisions was to launch AmeriCorps, leaving VISTA as only a sub-program, and as a compromise with Republican opponents, merged some elements of federal scholarship awards into the mix to save them.


AmeriCorps Game Changer

The finances of national service have changed dramatically over the years, for many political and economic reasons. Today’s AmeriCorps participant receives a living allowance, full medical insurance, and an after-service educational award – monetary benefits that in total equal the minimum wage on which millions of adults are expected to live. And AmeriCorps members only have to provide service for a set number of hours per week, without restrictions on what else they can do in their now-free time.

There’s not anything inherently wrong with this process. Most AmeriCorps members are justifiably proud of doing work with a social purpose. However, is AmeriCorps still a “volunteer” placement? This is an ethical consideration that has taken on greater meaning as the job market for recent grads tightens and many turn to national service as alternative, if low-paying, employment. Nonprofits are eager to obtain full-time staff for only the cost of matching funds, so they welcome AmeriCorps placements. The word “volunteer” is rarely used by either side, unless it’s time for public recognition.

Does it change the result if national service is approached as a job by the participant and the host agency? What might be lost treating the AmeriCorps member as an employee rather than a volunteer? Where is the boundary between genuine volunteering and crummy pay?

CNCS’s budget requests to Congress focus mainly on raising the funds available to AmeriCorps, while cutting back on such truly volunteer programs as RSVP. During the last budget cycle, the CNCS eliminated its Learn & Serve program, which supported public school children to learn about and do community service. It was arguably the agency’s most effective program, as it affected the attitudes of the next generation towards civic obligations.

Even more unsettling is the opposite situation with the Foster Grandparents and Senior Companion programs. These important services date back to 1965 and 1974 respectively, and were designed to be win-win for all involved. There were many children and older Americans with special needs. At the same time, there were low-income seniors in good health struggling to live on minimal pensions or Social Security.

Created as an income supplement project, the people recruited as Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions were required to meet the criteria of low income and had to work a minimum of 15 hours per week to obtain a stipend of $1.65/hour, which was raised in 1973 to $2.65/hour. The federal minimum wage was $1.60/hour in 1973. So, originally Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions were receiving meaningful and deserved recompense.

Here’s the problem: The hourly stipend for both programs remains $2.65. Why? The figure was written into law in 1973 and would require an act of Congress to change. So what began as a viable income supplement is now almost an insult. And, participants still must serve a minimum of 15 hours a week. Would it be worth it to you to give 15 hours for $39.75?

The Official Foster Grandparent sponsor organization information uses the term “volunteer” liberally, as do most of the recruiting documents. For example, here’s how it’s presented by North Coast Opportunities in Ukaih, Calif.: “The program provides a small tax-free stipend of $2.65 per hour as an enabler to volunteer. Volunteers also receive a token reimbursement for travel and other related benefits.” All of this would be fine if there were not so many requirements associated with the service. RSVP still has neither an income qualification nor gives any hourly stipend.

Insiders report that consternation exists about the situation, but none of the advocacy has gone public or received support from nonprofits or the media. Certainly the CNCS has not fought for any increase, nor has it changed the minimum hours required.

Again, nonprofits gaining the services of Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions should decide if they have an ethical obligation to make these programs real income supplements or whether they are permitting what might be considered exploitation to occur.

Some will not care about this issue as long as real needs are being met for all the players — the recipients of service, the hosting organizations, and the people doing the service with or without recompense. And, of course, successful outcomes are very important. The question is whether the ends justify the means. Nonprofits are paying moderate amounts for full-time help, but are getting workers who, by design, start out inexperienced and then must be replaced every year or two. This is a band-aid on the injury of insufficient funding for critical work. Having the full-time help often results in not recruiting unremunerated volunteers from the community who are more work to coordinate but have the potential to be around much longer.

As taxpayers, is it cost-effective to put so much money into stipended service by 100,000 AmeriCorps members while withdrawing federal support to the activities of the more than 60 million volunteers of all ages and types active in our communities today? The CNCS’s much-touted Social Innovation and Volunteer Generation Funds sound as if they are filling this void, but they are being awarded mainly to old guard organizations.

Maybe it’s time to discuss all this in a more public forum. Let’s start now.  NPT

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia, Pa.-based training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism and Everyone Ready® online volunteer management training program www.everyoneready.info. Her email is [email protected] The website is www.energizeinc.com