Amidst the predictable praise for volunteerism and the Serve America Act, we at Blue Avocado detect the mooing of a sacred cow. Cow hunter and policy analyst Rick Cohen lets us know the four things we should be worried about with public policy and volunteers:
Is your heart warm from last week’s combo of National Volunteer Week and the anniversary of Serve America? Eyes wide open:
- Bounty paper towels announcing the “Make a Clean Difference” volunteer campaign
- Kohl’s department stores supplying employee “volunteers” to youth organizations
- Pepsi announcing 32 Pepsi Refresh grants
- Virgin Mobile’s program where Lady Gaga fans enter a raffle for tickets in exchange for volunteering at homeless youth shelters
- Oh, and $1.15 billion in federal funds for Serve America
Yikes! Who wouldn’t be inspired?
But, we’re worried. Not about volunteerism. Not even about corporate “volunteerism.” We’re worried about the dangerous assumptions about volunteering that are used to make public policy in Washington. These assumptions reflect a deep misunderstanding of both volunteerism and the nonprofit sector, misunderstandings that can ultimately hurt both the voluntary and staffed segments of the sector.
The elephant’s tail
Despite the large funding and the anticipated deployment of 250,000 “volunteers” in low-paid positions (by 2017), the Serve America celebration did not focus much on how to maximize the impact of this social force either for community impact or for training volunteers for future employment. Instead, the lion’s share of attention has been given to the relatively tiny Social Innovation Fund and its $50 million allocation comprising just 4% of the total Act. (The funds will go largely to grantmakers for re-granting; one of the 69 applicants for funding is New Profit, the former employer of the head of SIF, Paul Carttar. Click here for Blue Avocado’s coverage of SIF.)
As volunteer managers and nonprofit leaders know, the limiting factor for volunteer impact is NOT a shortage of volunteers, stipended or not. Instead, the limiting factors are the capacity of nonprofits to deploy them effectively, and the unusability of untrained, ill-prepared, temporary volunteer workers.
The two parts of Serve America that are designed to address these key issues received shamefully small portions of the funding: the Volunteer Generation Fund, designed to expand the capacities of “volunteer connector organizations” received only $4 million, and the Nonprofit Capacity Building Program (originally authorized at $25 million by Congress) received only $1 million (for the whole country!).[Volunteer Generation Fund application deadline is May 18; Nonprofit Capacity Building letters of intent were due April 27 with full submissions on May 18.]
In short, the public’s attention has been drawn to the elephant’s tail rather than the elephant, attention that is blind to neglected support for the elephant trainers who turn the elephants into effective contributors.
Serve America: 250,000 below-minimum-wage jobs
If we follow the money rather than the fawning press attention, the main impact of Serve America is not in these small programs, but the intended quadrupling of the Corporation’s national service programs.
The bulk of federal funds for the Corporation for National and Community Service in FY 2010 ($1.149 billion) is intended to increase the number of AmeriCorps (stipended volunteer) positions to 105,000 toward the Serve America goal of 250,000 in 2017.
These efforts are based on four seriously flawed assumptions:
- That nonprofit work can be done effectively by enthusiastic-but-untrained volunteers or low-paid employees.
- That nonprofits experience a shortage of volunteers and do not need additional staffed capacity to support a large influx.
- That stipended volunteers do not displace paid nonprofit employees (that is, serve to increase the total nonprofit workforce by the number of volunteers rather than by a discounted number based on displaced paid positions).
- That “job creation” is fulfilled by such “jobs” — typically paid $13,000 per year full time, and less for part-time, well below minimum wage.
Instead, the realities are, to match point with point:
- Nonprofit work often requires high skill levels and significant experience, and should be paid appropriately if the work is to be sustainable.
- 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.
- Volunteers do displace nonprofit workers in lower-paid positions, at least according to the January/February 2010 Journal of Economics and Business.
- Stipended volunteer “jobs” do not offer enough for a person to live on, and contribute to the “casualization of jobs” in human services.
At a seminar extolling the Serve America impetus held at the Center for American Progress — a think tank close to the Obama Administration — Fellow Shirley Sagawa praised programs such as Teach for America and City Year, both programs that pay their volunteers, for their ability to “turn good will into outcomes.” Sagawa concluded that “public problems can be solved by ordinary citizens if they are called to action.” Resonating with American exceptionalism, Sagawa added it is “uniquely American to roll up your sleeves and get things done.”
The Obama promotion of voluntary action, whether entirely volunteer or stipended, is neither new nor solely Democratic. George H.W. Bush’s call for “one thousand points of light” was greeted with palpable public derision. Maybe it was because Bush was disinclined to put money behind the lights, something that Clinton succeeded in doing with the historic creation of AmeriCorps. George W. Bush promoted a USA Freedom Corps on top of AmeriCorps and called for all Americans to commit two years to volunteer service. President Obama has pledged to triple the size of AmeriCorps, in part through the creation of lots of additional “corps” (such as veterans corps, Healthy Futures Corps) devoted to specific areas of need.
The American exceptionalism here isn’t volunteerism, but the incorporation of volunteerism in national public policy. Here’s the downside of the volunteerism drumbeat:
Substituting, not supplementing
Imagine if we suggested that the solution to the troubles of Detroit automobile manufacturers was to replace their workers with temporary, untrained volunteers. (Pause here for reflection.)
But when it comes to nonprofits, it’s a different story. Today’s public policies on volunteers are based on the idea that nonprofit work needs neither training, skills, nor decent pay. AmeriCorps will provide thousands of highly motivated young people who will contribute much, but they cannot substitute for trained, reasonably-paid, permanent staff.
Moreover, this assumption also undermines the notion that nonprofits constitute a viable career option. And in addition, research shows that while volunteerism is meant to supplement paid nonprofit staff, low-skill volunteers often end up substituting for the lower wage jobs in nonprofits.
In many areas of public policy nonprofits are not treated with parity with their for-profit or government counterparts, for example, the charitable mileage deduction and, recently, the lower level of subsidization of nonprofits compared to small businesses for health insurance subsidies.
The stipended volunteerism juggernaut of Serve America creates “jobs” with AmeriCorps stipends of $10,000 to $13,000 that are above minimum wage only if you include the $10,000 scholarship benefit for those who complete the program and go on to get more education. And unexpectedly, it was discovered that prior to the Obama Administration, half of AmeriCorps participants were actually only employed part-time, although in all likelihood many were working many more hours than their positions required — or were paid for.
The downside of substituting low-paid stipended-volunteer slots for nonprofit human services jobs is the dynamic of the “casualization of jobs” that Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect describes as jobs that pay low wages, offer weak or no benefits, and little in the way of job protections. Such jobs, which he describes as the “industry standard” in the human service sector, could be different:
“Congress could require that any job in the human services supported in whole or in part by federal funds would have to pay a professional wage and be part of a career track [with a] minimum starting annual salary of $24,000 a year, or about $12 an hour.”
That’s not much of a salary, but it might sway the public’s irrational thinking that the nonprofit workforce can be sustained with an oversupply of caring and concern to make up for the shortfalls in take-home pay and job protections. What is needed is public policy that creates nonprofit jobs with good wages that motivate people to stay on the job.
What’s to be done?
First, we need to insist that the nonprofit workforce is treated equally with the business sector in government-supported job training programs, health insurance subsidies, and other areas. The rationalizations for disparate treatment of nonprofit employees is both wrongheaded and insulting.
Second, where nonprofit jobs are funded by government, those contracts should include funding to pay wages comparable to those of other sectors. In the most recent National Compensation Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average earnings of nonprofit workers in community and social services occupations, $17.68 an hour, lagged behind private sector ($17.82), state government ($20.80), and local government ($27.51).
Third, we in the nonprofit sector need to make clear-eyed, strategic use of the stipended volunteer programs. Not only must we leverage these volunteers for public benefit, we must also structure their jobs as first steps in nonprofit careers. With the array of training offered AmeriCorps participants, we can work to see that training for nonprofit careers is included.
Finally we can and must apply the same scrutiny and critical thinking to public policy in volunteerism that we bring to public policy in other areas. Volunteerism is now a major federal program involving the nonprofit sector: we can’t afford to let the feel-good aspects keep us from seeing — and working to correct — the very harmful components of current policy.
- Social Innovation Fund: Where is the Money Going?
- Teach for America: Icon with Feet of Clay?
- Gas Rates, Volunteers, and Justice
Rick Cohen‘s column appears in every other issue of Blue Avocado. Rick’s background includes community organizing, municipal government, executive positions at LISC, Jersey City government, and the Enterprise Foundation, and eight years as Executive Director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. He is National Correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly, and lives in Washington, D.C. where he never has a shortage of things to be grumpy about.