Volunteerism Public Policies Can Hurt Nonprofits

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.

Unequal wages

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.

See also:

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.

Comments (60)

  • A few fixes for the article, specifically the section which states: "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." Actually, the education stipend - or as Rick calls it, 'scholarship benefit' - granted through Americorps is a paltry $4,725. How I wish it was $10,000!
    Another detail which was slightly misrepresented is that this education stipend can ONLY be put towards ongoing education. Actually, it can also be used to pay off existing student loans.
    Thanks for the interesting article!

    May 11, 2010
  • Thanks for the correction. I missed correcting that correction in my article!

    May 13, 2010
  • Correction on the Ikyurav's correction:
    "The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act made changes to the maximum amount of the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award. The amount is now tied to the maximum amount of the U.S. Department of Education’s Pell Grant. For terms of service that are approved using 2009 funds (or earlier funds) the award continues to be $4,725 for a year of full-time service, and is pro-rated for part-time service based on the full-time amount. For terms of service that are supported with 2010 funds the award value increases to $5,350.00. You can make payments from your award in full or part, and can take up to seven years after your term of service has ended to use your award."
    from http://www.americorps.gov/for_individuals/benefits/benefits_ed_award.asp

    May 11, 2010
  • Thanks for the informative update!

    May 13, 2010
  • Excellent analysis! I have volunteered with shelter-based animal rescue organizations for more than a decade. In that time I've seen the non-profits change from being providers of supplemental benefits to the shelter animals into funders of basic medical attention and humane services that local government has decided not to fund (despite legal requirements).
    Any thoughts on how to reverse this trend? The volunteers are frustrated, but can only shrug shoulders and say "If we don't do it, it won't get done- then the animals will suffer".

    May 11, 2010
  • In a way, you're addressing not just the issue of how volunteers are used, but how nonprofits are used in society. Increasingly, nonprofits are being positioned to take the place of the public sector in providing specific functions and services--and as one of my previous Avocado articles noted, being asked to do so in the face of reduced grants and contracts from government and increased tax hits despite their tax exempt status. In other countries, the nonprofit sector is called the "voluntary sector", like the volunteer basis of their operations. But when the public arena fades from its roles and functions, nonprofits end up "volunteering" just like the volunteers working with you at the animal rescue organization.

    May 13, 2010
  • And also there are so many AmeriCorps that serve in public and private schools as tutors, assistant teachers and teachers such as the case for Teach for America. I can't help but think that these positions are replacing good paying jobs for trained people in this area and the school doesnt get funding for more teachers aids because it can rely on external source of labor which they should actually be paying for. Teach for America brings in volunteers w no background in education to run a classroom at the expense of kids at low-income and underperforming schools. Many times they are sent to kindergarten and elementary classrooms, critical development stages where students acquisition of phonics and reading set them up for the rest of their lives. What is needed is more trained and experienced proffesionls, not for feel good volunteers to learn what it's like to be a teacher.

    Jun 25, 2016
  • Great article! And thanks for noting the corrections . . . don't forget that the $4,725 education award is also taxable (not a fun surprise come tax season).

    May 11, 2010
  • Another note from a current AmeriCorps volunteer:
    The "array of training offered [to] AmeriCorps participants" is not actually useful. I am lucky to work for an organization that provides significant training and support, but AmeriCorps itself has nothing to do with that. AmeriCorps provides two training sessions with inept, long-winded, out-of-state trainers on subjects that have been so generalized, they are basically irrelevant to the work we do at our organizations. Their attitude toward their volunteers is also insulting and deeply disrespectful--the experience of the volunteers at these trainings is similar to the experience of being a high school student suspected of bad behavior. More than a third of my entering VISTA class left their jobs within the first three months, mostly for these reasons rather than the extremely low wages.
    Additionally, I would like to note that AmeriCorps VISTA actually prohibits its volunteers from holding outside employment to supplement their incomes. AmeriCorps also provide little-to-no support for obtaining the benefits that such a tiny stipend entitles us to, such as putting our loans into forbearance and obtaining food stamps.
    I love working for my organization, but thank you for pointing out that AmeriCorps needs some serious work.

    May 11, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I would agree whole-heartedly that the training from AmeriCorps varies widely from program to program. I received great support during my State program, but not as much during my VISTA program.

    May 21, 2010
  • Anonymous

    How did you find out what fraction of your fellow VISTAs left in the first three months? I'm about to finish my year, and I'd be curious to know what percent of everyone at my PSO is still around.

    May 27, 2010
  • As someone with 10 years of nonprofit experience and having recently decided to commit to a second year as an Americorps VISTA at my current site, I can offer a unique perspective. While I completely agree with the problems inherent in the Serve America Act's failure to address agency capacity to support an influx of volunteers, I have found my Americorps service to be of tremendous benefit to myself and my agency. I had heard about a wide array of experiences of Peace Corps and Americorps volunteers, so I chose my agency and position very carefully. I also came to the position with previous experience that could be put to immediate use by my agency to do what I believe the VISTA program is best at doing: testing out a new position to gauge it's impact before committing funds to it. My second year of service is a bridge to allow the agency to find funds for what senior management has been convinced is a vital service to the agency.
    While changes to the quality and quantity of Americorps training seems important (although I have personally gotten excellent support in this area), I also think it is important for the agencies that are considering applying for an Americorps grant to have the capacity to support the placement and to think about their priorities. Having a temporary VISTA position or someone with no experience running a vital program like Volunteer Services, for example, shows a lack of understanding and commitment on the part of the agency, not the Americorps program. And I think Americorps is a great way for someone who might not have considered a nonprofit career to get a closer look and perhaps feel inspired to commit to a profession in the sector.

    May 11, 2010
  • I was a foundation-paid consultant to some of the designers of the national AmeriCorps in its beginning stages under the Clinton Administration. We, or I should say, some of us viewed just as you said in your last sentence, a great way for people to get a taste of a career in the nonprofit sector. There are lots of different experiences with AmeriCorps, as the comments in response to this article attest, but the nonprofit sector overall has to make sure that AmeriCorps gets properly structured and used for nonprofit and public sector career building, not for creating a low-wage alternative to well-paying jobs in the nonprofit sector. I have faith that the new leadership of the Corporation for National and Community Service has a perspective on nonprofit work as a career option and will work toward that end.

    May 13, 2010
  • Excellent column. Truly important.

    May 11, 2010
  • Wonderful! Thank you.

    May 11, 2010
  • How can volunteers be paid? It is contrary to the definition of volunteer. This is government-speak for welfare for young and inexperienced workers. A job corps program that doesn't lead anywhere. Regards, Allen

    May 11, 2010
  • The idea of stipends for volunteers was one of the initial criticisms of AmeriCorps by Republicans in Congress. Stephen Waldman's brilliant book, "The Bill : How Legislation Really Becomes Law: A Case Study of the National Service Bill," describes this controversy in some detail. Leaving that aside, there is the question of rethinking AmeriCorps as a jobs program. Given the recent news about AmeriCorps graduates having a tough time in the job market given still rampant unemployment rates for young people, see http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/employment/2010-05-09-service-prog..., I've suggested elsewhere that it might be time for some re-purposing of AmeriCorps to make it more like a jobs corps that addressed issues of employment and careers rather than churning people through the program into post-AmeriCorps unemployment, see http://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=arti....

    May 13, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Having worked with AmeriCorps programs nationally for 15 years, one of the things I have always appreciated about members receiving a small living stipend during their year of service to a nonprofit is that it allows people from a range of socio-economic backgrounds to participate. Without the stipend, it would be very difficult for lower income folks to be able to dedicate themselves and give 1700 hours of service to a cause they care about in their community. The stipend reduces the need for members to have some other job while serving just to survive or rely on the checkbooks of their parents.

    May 21, 2010
  • You're right, but I always believed in larger stipends. When I worked for one of the AmeriCorps national grantees, I always pushed to maximize the stipends, though I generally got lots of pushback from the Corporation. I suspect--or I hope--that the antipathy toward maximizing stipends is lessening, because the typical stipend is still pretty low and hard to live on without help. I haven't had to live on a minimum wage income for a long time, but I suspect even as an individual rather than a family, it is one hard grind.

    May 21, 2010
  • Another astute piece, thank you Rick!
    While I love the idea of young people doing a year of public service, I agree with you though that the meager funds for capacity building and the low stipends for AmeriCorps volunteers are huge detractors from the program.
    The stipends are incredibly low - it hardly pays for rent, let alone food and transportation.
    Furthermore, it makes it impossible for young people who don't come from privileged backgrounds to take the position. We had a candidate last year for AmeriCorps, but she couldn't take the job - she was an minority, her parents weren't rich and they were still putting her brother through school.
    1.15 billion can be spent in a more thoughtfully!

    May 11, 2010
  • When I worked for LISC, I wrote LISC's national AmeriCorps application. I recall with great pain my long arguments with the Corporation staff at that time to allow us to maximize the possible stipends (both from the federal government and local match) so that our AmeriCorps participants would be able to live and survive. I still advocate increasing the stipends and suggest that all recipient agencies do all they can to maximize compensation for these hardworking (mostly) young people.

    May 13, 2010
  • I was rather distressed when I read this article, because as a nonprofit Executive Director for the last 10 years, our program has hired more than 35 individual placements (IP) and crew members since 2000, and almost all have been very competent, well-qualified staff members who have provided immeasurable support to our programs over the years. We could not function without them.
    Our IPs work with volunteers and students, collect donations, manage and support volunteer events, and a variety of other activities that allow us to expand our programs to many more people than we otherwise would, especially when we could not afford to hire full time staff members to fill these positions.
    This year we are paying $8,000 (12 months) for a Washington Conservation Corps member, and $5,000 (10.5 months) for a Washington Service Corps member. To hire a single staff member it would most likely cost us $25 - 30,000 with salary and benefits, yet we get 2 IPs for half that cost. Yes, we need to provide them space and computers and on-the-job training, but because the AmeriCorps program focuses on 18 - 25 year olds, we often have the choice of hiring 23-25 year olds with at least a bachelors, if not occasionally a master's student, and some relevant job experience. We provide a great year of a multitude of types of projects that provide a well-rounded skill base and a long list of networking opportunities when these IPs are ready to go out into the work force, and I can't think of one who has found it difficult to find a job when they leave our organization.
    As for the crew, we also go out of our way to provide relevant training and skill building so that they are prepared for the work force when they leave.
    Please get your facts straight when it comes to the use of "volunteers" for Serve America - nonprofits don't have to hire just anyone for these positions, and almost every one that we have hired over the years have been outstanding candidates who have gone on to do great things in the world!

    May 11, 2010
  • That's right, nonprofits don't have to "hire" anyone for these positions. But hiring people for these positions at sub-living wage, sub-minimum wage levels is a pretty tough way of building nonprofit staff. Because I've worked with many AmeriCorps participants, I know many who have gone on to do great things in the world after their AmeriCorps experience. I want to maximize the possibility that they'll see the nonprofit sector as the venue for the great things they are eager to do.

    May 13, 2010
  • Anonymous

    You say you "could not function without" your low-paid volunteers and then brag about how little you can get by with paying them. But while we're talking about discounts, please remember that we're not talking about cars or bulk goods. These are real people who need to live and eat, and those things cost money. If someone is doing a job that would normally pay $25-30,000 a year plus benefits, then clearly the value of that work is $25-30,000 a year plus benefits ... not a paltry $5,000.

    You also brag about how you can get a person with a B.A. or even an M.A. and still be away with paying them next to nothing ... do you really think that's what a person goes to grad school for? To make well below minimum wage? Have YOU ever experienced the frustration of having such high credentials and been told that your education and your work output were worth so little?

    If your organization truly cannot get by except by cheating and paying sub-standard wages, maybe you need to go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to accomplish your goals and still pay fair wages.

    Jul 21, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I think you're overlooking the fact that AmeriCorps is a voluntary program. People participate because they want to volunteer and make a difference in their community. When I was an AmeriCorps volunteer, I knew that my organization could not have afforded to pay me a full salary. That wasn't insulting to me. I was happy that I could make a big difference to my organization and those we served in a way that would have been impossible for the organization to do otherwise. We all feel good when we volunteer. Had I been in it for the money, I wouldn't have chosen AmeriCorps--heck, I wouldn't have chosen the social-service sector at all. Now if you want to talk about AmeriCorps positions as eroding wages or eliminating decent-paying entry-level nonprofit jobs, that's worth discussing. But the fact of the matter is that nonprofits are always pressured to do more with less. If they can find AmeriCorps volunteers eager to contribute to their community by living on a lower wage for a year or two, they'd be foolish not to take advantage of that, just as they'd be foolish to squander other volunteer time. I and most of the other AmeriCorps volunteers I know have used their experience as a entry into full-wage nonprofit or education careers. We gained skills, connections, and passion to keep making a difference in our communities. I don't know of anyone who couldn't feed or house themselves on the AmeriCorps stipend (though I do recognize that that accomplishment alone often requires some privilege). I'm proud of my volunteer service, proud of the career it's given me, and have zero regrets about choosing AmeriCorps.

    Aug 31, 2011
  • As a former AmeriCorps State/National member of two years and a current nonprofit executive director, I think the most salient point in this article is about the sustainability of hiring year-long employees. I know from being and talking to these "volunteers" that it takes at least three months to really understand what you are doing, and then another three to become really effective, and then by that point your term of service is almost over. That's six months of training (if your agency actually dedicates a staff member to provide it), and then it starts all over again in another few months.
    Basically, an agency is providing free training and using precious time of an actual employee to do it. Many programs are unprepared to offer this kind of support and training to their new-found volunteers, which makes for a difficult experience for the volunteer, as well as the organization who hired them, expecting instant results.
    While many programs do provide workers with invaluable job skills, they also teach "volunteers" bad habits. Those of us who were trained to work long hours with low pay as AmeriCorps members were told that we had a "good work ethic" and thought that this would help the organization. Not true - we were simply learning how to burn out fast, hard, and early. With higher pay and more support, we can have more sustainability in our jobs, and keep highly skilled people in the nonprofit sector for longer.

    May 11, 2010
  • Your comment raises two issues for me: Recruiting, training, and managing volunteers (or stipended volunteers) is a cost item. People outside of this field forget that organizations have to train and manage volunteer staff. That's that administrative overhead cost issue that so many people outside the field overlook. The other issue is burnout. If the message we send young people is, work long hours for little pay and through that demonstrate a good work ethic, that's a good recipe for burnout. Many of us have been there, the Avocado has often written directly and indirectly about the burnout problem. That's a problem, not just of AmeriCorps, but of some of the nonprofit sector in general, where many of us are struggling to hold life and job together, working longer hours for less pay facing greater workplace demands.

    May 13, 2010
  • Oh, thank you for this article. You said everything I've been trying to say. When I've made comments about the flaws of Americorps to fellow nonprofit colleagues, I might have well been kicking a puppy for the reaction I got. You said it much better! Thanks for looking critically at a sacred cow.

    May 12, 2010
  • Hello. I disagree very strongly with a lot of what you said. I will respond directly to what you view the *realities to be.
    •Nonprofit work often requires high skill levels and significant experience, and should be paid appropriately if the work is to be sustainable.
    Some AmeriCorps volunteers can fill positions requiring "high skill levels" and "significant experience" because they possess both.
    Furthermore, nonprofits are not forced to hire AmeriCorps volunteers. They elect to. Therefore, it is the fault of the nonprofit, not the AmeriCorps program, if a nonprofit hires an underqualified volunteer
    •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.
    Once again, nonprofits are not required to hire AmeriCorps volunteers. This is not a criticism of the AmeriCorps program, but an assumption that the majority of people willing to volunteer are unskilled.
    To provide some anecdotal evidence, I met tons of VISTAs during my term of service both with my nonprofit and for others in the area. Each was very qualified, mostly overqualified, and doing great work.
    •Volunteers do displace nonprofit workers in lower-paid positions, at least according to the January/February 2010 Journal of Economics and Business.
    Volunteers displace nonprofit workers because it saves the nonprofit money.
    What I think you mean to say is that if the AmeriCorps program wasn't in place the positions once filled by AmeriCorps volunteers would be filled by higher-paid, higher-skilled, full-time employees.
    I believe non-profits, upon the elimination/diminution of the AmeriCorps program, would expand their unpaid internship programs to fill the vacant positions. Unpaid interns make $0, which is as far from the poverty line one can get.
    •Stipended volunteer "jobs" do not offer enough for a person to live on, and contribute to the "casualization of jobs" in human services.
    Criticism of a *volunteer* program for not paying enough is fallacious. No one is twisting anyone's arm to be an AmeriCorps volunteer. A volunteer volunteers.
    Also, unpaid interns work for zero dollars because the experience is an investment that will pay in the form of better jobs in the future. The same can be said for AmeriCorps volunteers.
    This being said, once again, nonprofits will not fill vacant positions with high-paying jobs upon the elimination/diminution of the AmeriCorps program. They will find ways to keep cost low, either through unpaid interns or increasing the work burden for existing employees.
    (As you probably know, grants usually have a threshhold above which operations costs are not allowed to pass. Nonprofits are rational actors, if increasing their payroll was possible or made productive sense they would have done so already).

    *Realities of what? Are you referring to employment across the entire nonprofit sector across the entire United States?

    May 13, 2010
  • Thanks for your comments. I'll address them in sequence: 1. Re skills and experience, please realize that much of the public, often abetted by our own public relations, thinks that what's needed for nonprofit work is a big heart, a willingness to work for low wages, and lots of caring. As a sector, we have to counter that. Many AmeriCorps participants do bring some skills, they should be used that way, but we need as a sector to continually emphasize the importance of skills and professionalism in our work--and the importance of decent wages. 2. Re oversupply of volunteers, many studies I've seen suggest that there are shortages of volunteers in some skill categories needed by nonprofits and an overabundance of volunteers without applicable skills, though they possess the best of intentions and values. It's not anecdotal, it's real. The challenge for nonprofits is in part to identify and recruit volunteers with skills that fit areas of need. And yes, sometimes nonprofits mismatch volunteers with what they might productively do. 3. Re displacement of paid staff, I would refer you to Joan Pynes's book, Human resources management for public and nonprofit organizations, available on Google Books, for a reference to the ethics of using volunteers to displace paid staff. Maybe I've spent too many years in the union movement, but we don't want to position volunteers against salaried employees as a Hobbsian choice nonprofits have to make. 4. Re twisting arms, no one is twisting nonprofit arms to hire AmeriCorps workers. But as a society, we should be committed to paying decent salaries to people in the social sector. When volunteers end up displacing paid staff or lowering sectoral wage rates (because employers can get a stipended volunteer instead of an above-minimum-wage employee), we are making a societal choice that isn't to the good. Let's use AmeriCorps--and volunteers--as great supplements for nonprofit staff, let's use AmeriCorps--and volunteers--as wonderful introductions to careers in the nonprofit (and public) sectors, but let's redouble the nation's efforts to strengthen the finances and compensation levels of nonprofit employers.

    May 13, 2010
  • Thank you for responding to my comment. I think it's awesome you respond thoughtfully to your readers. I think I'll make blueavocado a regular read.
    Maybe I've spent too many years in the union movement, but we don't want to position volunteers against salaried employees as a Hobbsian choice nonprofits have to make.
    There is nothing sinister about replacing paid staff with volunteers. Instead, it would be unethical for a nonprofit receiving donations to not do everything in its power to legally keep its costs as low as possible. Lower payroll = more money for the nonprofit's mission.
    This choice between volunteers and paid staff will always exist.
    What do we do, deny nonprofits the option of hiring volunteers and prevent volunteers from volunteering?

    May 14, 2010
  • Sinister, no. But the choice between paid staff and volunteer staff is often quite difficult. Sometimes cutting back on paid staff means something of a reduction in potential quality re mission performance. The problem in the debate you and I are having is the diversity of the nonprofit sector. It always strikes me that our 1.2 million 501(c)(3) organizations (or 1.8 million tax exempts) are sometimes connected by little more than their corporate tax status. A large university and a homeless shelter might be 501(c)(3)s, but the similarities beyond that might be a little sparse. Writers in my position are so often called on to make sweeping judgments about the "nonprofit sector" when it's exceptionally hard to talk about the entire sector in one fell swoop. I'd love to pitch this volunteer vs. paid staff question to an ethicist to learn what an ethicist would advise nonprofit managers when presented with this option. Thank you again for your comments.

    May 14, 2010
  • Thanks for the thoughtful post and the many comments. I was a Commissioner on the Illinois Commission for Volunteer and Community Service for 9 years and I constantly fought the battle to build infrastructure to support long-term volunteering in community problem solving. That means finding dollars to support operations of non profits who engage volunteers, so they can give them great support and maximize their impact.
    It frustrates me that policy makers think we can solve complex social problems with untrained volunteers who only stay in their roles for one or two years, when we would not use the same level of talent to run our corporations, or our military.
    I was one of ten people to represent Chicago at the 1997 President's Summit and in a follow up meeting I was sitting next to the community affairs manager of a large corporation. When I mentioned that non profits need to beef up staff to support more volunteers, the person said "Dan, this is about volunteering, not about philanthropy."
    Until we change that thinking we'll spend billions of manhours, and dollars, but still have some of the same complex problems facing this country.
    I write about this topic at http://tutormentor.blogspot.com and created the Tutor/Mentor Connection to try to build more consistent support for non-school tutor/mentor programs in Chicago. I look forward to connecting people who want to find ways to build the infrastructure supporting volunteer involvement in social change organizations.

    May 13, 2010
  • We need to pay more attention to building the infrastructure of the nonprofit sector to absorb, manage, and properly utilize the energies and commitment of volunteers. Your comment about needing to beef up the staff to support volunteers reminds me about an article I wrote for Nonprofit Quarterly ("Volunteering by the Numbers") in the fall of 2008. Data on U.S. nonprofits' management structures for volunteers was a little hard to come by, but in the UK, the Institute for Volunteering Research surveyed 1,300 managers of volunteers in British charities to discover that 1/4 had no financial resources dedicated to supporting their volunteer operations, 1/4 of all volunteer managers were themselves volunteers, and the average volunteer manager was responsible for an average of 15 volunteers (the median number was 20). Building the infrastructure of nonprofits is a challenge of philanthropy and a challenge of government funding. Philanthropy has to remember that it has an obligation to build and strengthen the nonprofit sector, even though that isn't quite what many foundation directors see themselves doing. And government has to provide nonprofit grantees sufficient indirect or overhead grants to ensure that recipients are not in the end organizationally debilitated in the process of working with government.

    May 13, 2010
  • Having served as a stipended VISTA volunteer myself in a vicious recession in the early 1980s, I can attest to both the character-building side of nonprofit work, and the also the brutal underside of the nonprofit economy. And I do give a big shout out to VISTA, because my community organizing experience trained me to look out for the working poor in our own ranks.

    One of my friends, a former information-and-referral worker at United Way, told me “Over twenty years, I have helped literally hundreds of people avoid homelessness, but I am now retiring without a pension and may soon be homeless myself.” Another time, my boss and the director of a Community Action Program caught me hitchhiking to a conference, because we had no budget for transportation. And, I still remember sleeping under a hotel banquet table at the national food bank conference in California, because – you guessed it – we had no budget for lodging.

    As people throughout the sector are well aware, the problem has not been solved. In virtually any community in the United States, you can find underpaid workers working in human services, child care, elder care or other fields that have miserable wages and paltry benefits. In communities that consider living wage ordinances, nonprofits are often caught in the middle, since their ability to hike wages is constrained by flat budgets and a mentality of scarcity.

    When we look at the broader economy, we see two big things – persistent lousy wages for millions of workers, and an insufficient number of jobs for everyone who wants to work. In 2008, the latest 
year available, 17.8 million people worked full-time year-round and earned less than poverty level wages -- 17.1 percent of full-time, full-year workers.

    And the labor market is indeed a high-stakes game of musical chairs. We’ve lost 8 million jobs in the last 2 year. 15 million people are officially unemployed and nearly 30 million people are unemployed or underemployed, when you include discouraged workers and people who work part-time but want full-time work. The National Jobs for All Coalition estimates that there are now 11 job seekers for every available job. http://www.njfac.org/jobnews.html

    So, in this environment, we strongly agree with Bob Kuttner’s proposal that we make every human service job a decent job, with fair pay and benefits. Such a program would require significant public and philanthropic investments, but it would have an enormous payoff for workers and nonprofits, and for the community as a whole.

    Rather than wringing our hands about purported labor shortages for child care and long-term care, for example, we ought to be honest and admit that there are plenty of workers out there, but that the private sector fails to pay the freight for decent human services, and the time has come to ramp up public investment. If we invested in child care and afterschool programs for all eligible kids, for example, educational outcomes might improve, delinquency rates would fall, and parents would have more opportunity to earn income and study for career advancement. A lot more money would be sloshing around in the economy because human service workers have more discretionary income, and the deficit would get paid down way faster because people are again working and paying taxes.

    Two weeks ago, I attended the Blue-Green Alliance conference on “Good Jobs, Green Jobs,” which was attended by over 3,000 labor activists and environmentalists, from Steelworkers to Sierra Club members. There is tremendous power in this cross-sectoral coalition, which is collaborating at the community, state and federal level to raise expectations for clean energy, conservation, and even the eventual revival of the manufacturing sector, despite some very tough obstacles.

    But I couldn’t help thinking that nonprofits can and should be the Third Leg in a national movement for Good Jobs in America. Maybe we need a Blue-Green-Pink and Plaid Alliance. We should get out of our issue silos, and build similar worker-community-advocacy alliances to press for substantial job creation and wage and benefit improvements for nonprofit workers. Virtually any human services advocate has a story to tell, that can end with a punch line regarding the economic, social and community benefits of improved services, and the employment and community benefits of creating jobs and raising wages for nonprofit workers.

    The nonprofit sector can provide a badly-needed bridge to the 21st Century by suggesting ways to create the good, stable jobs America needs and wants. But we need to feel that we ourselves are entitled to a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. And we need to double down on ending poverty, and closing the vast human services and infrastructure gaps that leave millions of Americans without affordable housing, health care and child care, and other priority community services.

    May 15, 2010
  • While I totally understand the perspective of your article, and my CPA would totally agree with the issues of paying equal pay for equal work.....the new Americorps programs do offer some perks that many student interns have not had access to in the past. As a non-profit organization that offers Master's Level students and Bachalor's level students, from a variety of counseling fields, social work and human service backgrounds the opportunity for mentoring, skilled supervision, on-site experience with clients, the opportunity to learn from speicalists in child play therapy, art therapy and various other modalities of clinical work and now, will actually receive some educational assistance and/or a nominal living stipend to do so. Schools have been using intern practical placements for years as a means to provide students experience in their field prior to graduation. It also gives them the opportunity to connect professionally with their agency or others with whom they work for their practicum, which often leads to job placements. These programs have been requiring students to do placements for years, paid or unpaid. As you can imagine most have been unpaid. With the Americorps programs over the next few years, we will have a resource to help them leverage some educational dollars and a stipend for living expenses. It does help open doors for them and get them off to a great start in a non-profit career. We seldom have to look beyond our interns to fill openings. It is a win-win situation. Jeanetta Issa, CEO CAPA

    May 15, 2010
  • Dear Jeanetta: Of course AmeriCorps and internships have their place and value. Add work-study to that too. Back in ancient times, I started my nonprofit career as a planner for Action for Boston Community Development, one of the original anti-poverty agencies. I was a work-study kid from BU. The exposure to ABCD and the opportunity to be mentored by fabulous staff led me to a career in the nonprofit sector. The issue, as Chuck Bell's comment makes clear, is to make sure that we don't end up with a permanently underpaid nonprofit labor force, where underpaid staff end up displacing rather than supplementing paid staff. All of the comments here attest to the complexity of the challenge, made more difficult by the reducing funding many nonprofits encounter from governmental agencies and private foundations, leading them to find low-cost staff recruits to replace higher paid and better trained "permanent" staff. As I noted in one of my previous responses, AmeriCorps has some real potential for serving as a pipeline into the sector. But AmeriCorps stipends are hardly enough to cover living expenses, and we have to ensure that the public doesn't become entranced by the notion that nonprofits can deliver its advocacy and service functions by compensating staff with sub-living wage living expense stipends.

    May 15, 2010
  • I read all of the above with great interest. As a professional volunteer coordinator, meaning that I have had training and years of experience in the field, I am happy to actually have a REAL volunteer coordinator position with a non-profit. I know this to be true: there are very few of us in this profession that feel as though we are treated sincerely as professionals and paid just as insignificantly. I have recognized that the infrastructure of volunteer centers is less cared about than child care workers and do not expect that I will make a living wage- lucky I have a well paid husband.
    The last contributor basically said it all. We, as a society, must choose where out allegiance lies, basketball, football and movie stars? or the average well-trained folks who work hard and get paid little?
    To my way of thinking, Americorps does two things; it bridges the gap for young people who need to find out a little about life, work, and where to go "from here", and allows those who may be struggling to choose careers or change careers to get a taste for something other than what they did before. The good news is, it also helps non-profits enhance their services and determine if additional staffing is needed in certain areas of their work.
    This can be abused by the non-rpofit as well- I knew one volunteer center who was so dependent on her VISTAS and Americorps year after year that she would be on pins and needles every Fall worrying if she was going to get one. I wanted to ask her why she didn't hire someone but I knew the answer. She didn't have $40.000 to pay them. There is where some of the 1.5 should go: Support the centers who provide the service to everyone.
    Volunteer Coordinator

    May 17, 2010
  • Dear Volunteer Coordinator: Thanks for your comment, especially for its balance regarding the use and abuse of volunteers. As a volunteer coordinator, you get to see the full range of nonprofit behaviors toward volunteers and stipended volunteers. I found this part of your comment very interesting: "I have recognized that the infrastructure of volunteer centers is less cared about than child care workers and do not expect that I will make a living wage- lucky I have a well paid husband." I was always trained by my human resources mentors never to inquire about much less make a salary judgment based on an employee's access to income from family members such as spouses. I therefore always judged all employees' salary needs as based on the job description and job responsibilities, not on the access to a well-paid spouse. But the reality is, as you imply, that for many of us in the nonprofit sector, that's how we survive and function. For example, in a previous article for the Avocado, I think I noted that unpublished data from the BLS suggested that the proportion of the nonprofit sector workforce was roughly 22-24 percent, which is higher than the part-time employment proportion of the nation's total labor force. Since part-timers generally don't qualify for health benefits, one implication might be that these part-timers may be able to do without health coverage because they have a spouse with coverage. The fact that so many of us are able to make ends meet because we have a spouse with income and benefits is a telling characteristic of employment in the sector where being paid "insignificantly" is part of the picture. Thanks again for your wonderful comment.

    May 17, 2010
  • One of the underlying problems with Americorps is similar to that of VISTA, Peace Corps, Executive Service Corps, RSVP, many student service learning programs, and Taproot. No doubt most of these are excellent experiences for the volunteers. The issue is: do they exist for the good of the volunteers or the good of society (as operative here in the work of a nonprofit)? I've just been through yet another experience with a group of MBA students working in "consulting teams" that has resulted in a useless product created by dozens and dozens of hours on our part (the nonprofit's part), and for the students: great grades and resume experience. Oh and they are so pleased with themselves and their USELESS charts.

    If we nonprofits are to be training volunteers, giving them great resumes, and also making them feel wonderful about themselves, why aren't we getting paid to be doing this, instead of (in effect) having to PAY for it in staff time and stipends? (Can you tell how frustrated I am?)

    May 17, 2010
  • Anonymous

    As a director of an Executive Service Corps who is familiar also with Taproot, I can tell you that these programs are focused on providing quality services that are comparable with those of private consultants and consulting firms. In fact many local nonprofit consultants also volunteer with our ESC. Are they competent and client oriented when doing their private work and self-interested and incompetent when volunteering for ESC? I don't think so, and neither do our clients, 100% of whom would recommend ESC to other organizations.

    If skills based volunteerism is going to work it will be because we develop - and non profits learn to use - intermediary organizations like ESC and Taproot to offer well designed consulting, leadership coaching and capacity building programs to nonprofits.

    Your nonprofit should not engage with any volunteer, whether they are reading to kids or "making charts," if you have not defined the work that needs to be done and checked to make sure the volunteers are qualified and able to provide you with what you need. Rather than assume that these models are full of foolish and self interested people, consider how you are managing the engagement process.

    It takes staff time to work effectively on organizational problems. If you are not convinced that you will receive services that are worth that time, you should not make use of these volunteer programs.

    May 29, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I would like to comment on this article because I have served as an AmeriCorps VISTA and as a Team Leader with the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (a program that includes room and board) - both very different programs where I was well-trained, and performed the work of a staff member. In addition, I would like to say that I made sacrifices to be in VISTA because the mission of VISTA is to eradicate poverty and when you are in the program, you live at the level of poverty of those you are serving - just for one year.

    As far as AmeriCorps VISTA goes, it really depends on the nonprofit you are placed with whether your training is extensive and useful. After that, it is really up to the VISTA to decide how much effort they want to put in - it is a very individual role where you get back as much as you choose to put in. I met and surpassed my goals in my VISTA program, and I did not have to accomplish that by "burning out."

    I was also trained very well in NCCC - trained to lead a group of Corps Members and be an instant site coordinator with an educational, environmental, needs-based (such as Habitat for Humanity) or disaster relief effort anywhere in the country. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, many of the first volunteers to help with the clean-up were the well-trained teams of AmeriCorps NCCC. I know from experience with many different nonprofits that regular volunteers come and go very quickly and are often not trained at all - no matter how many of them there are, they are very hard to hold on to at times. Whereas an AmeriCorps member is committing a full year of service to their country and will show up when other volunteers may not.

    While with NCCC, I also had the job of recruiting for not only NCCC, but also the VISTA and State and National programs in the western region of the United States, so I know the programs inside and out.

    I must say that as an AmeriCorps Alumni, I find it offensive that you would use the words "untrained" and "volunteer" so much in this article, especially if you partook in putting one of these programs together as you mentioned above. The AmeriCorps members I have encountered are very well-trained, and AmeriCorps is community service program, not a volunteer program. If it was simply a volunteer program, the living stipend and Education Award would not be available, the person would be doing the work for free.

    While I understand that one of the main points in your article is to get people to understand that an AmeriCorps member could be taking the place of a well-paid staff member, I find plenty more nonprofits seeking a REAL volunteer, not an AmeriCorps member, to do a staff-level job for free as an intern. That is something you should be more concerned about than AmeriCorps members taking over the sector.

    Finally, I would like to say that I am currently looking for work in the nonprofit field, and I fully understand that the economy makes finding a job in any sector very difficult. I know that I was well-trained, and performed successfully at staff-level capacity in both of my AmeriCorps positions, but it is because of articles such as this that characterize AmeriCorps members as "untrained volunteers" just wasting nonprofits' time and money that gives my years of service a bad rap - and myself and people like me a harder time of finding a staff job with a nonprofit organization.

    May 18, 2010
  • The article was about volunteerism as being promoted as public policy. We recommended using and structuring AmeriCorps to promote nonprofit careers. We didn't say that untrained volunteers waste nonprofits' time and money, that's not there. What we did say is that using volunteers to replace higher paid staff is a difficult and troubling course of action. It may be cost-effective for the nonprofit, but doesn't necessarily build a career-path, well paid path for nonprofit employment. Good luck with your job search.

    May 18, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I think the problem here is that AmeriCorps is not clearly defined as service in your article, or perhaps by CNCS itself. These positions are not jobs, and are not volunteer positions. They are service positions.

    Like members of the Peace Corps, these civil servants receive a living allowance that is designed to cover their expenses and facilitate their service. They are expected to live at the poverty level, like many of the people they are serving. This allows members to be in a unique position where they understand the struggles of the issues they are addressing, and where the community can relate to the individuals without barriers of income stratification. We try to meet their basic needs so they can focus on service, but the amount of money they receive isn't much so we also provide benefits.

    The benefits vary by program, but my program provides health insurance, dental insurance, educational benefits, and more. We provide training, and give them valuable experience that most of them couldn't get elsewhere. Some of our members come from a life of poverty themselves, and some come from privileged backgrounds. At no time during recruitment do we advertise this as a job, or a volunteer opportunity. AmeriCorps service is always clearly defined as an opportunity to serve their community and their country, and it should be accurately portrayed as such by your article as well.

    P.S. No agency can replace existing workers with members, and there are many checks in place to prevent this from happening. Member positions are granted annually to prevent agencies from underfunding their work force by using AmeriCorps members, and positions are designed to benefit both the community and the member (through training, experience, connections, etc.). Also, most of our AmeriCorps members move through the program and into permanent positions at the end of their service. Many of our agencies host a member for a year or two, and after demonstrating the necessity of that member and the quality of that member's commitment to the agency and community, they are able to acquire funds and create full-time jobs for the former members, something that would otherwise be impossible for many of these small underfunded nonprofits.

    May 19, 2010
  • Very interesting post. The question isn't one of how AmeriCorps positions are defined, but how they are used by nonprofits. Your organization and others are trying to look to AmeriCorps for exactly what I thought it could be when I first consulted with people helping design the program under the Clinton Administration. You're describing a process of having AmeriCorps members move through your program into permanent--and presumably much higher paying--positions. That's exactly what I thought AmeriCorps could and should do.

    But I think, based on the comments received for this column and others, that is not the case in many many nonprofits. Nor is it how the public (and many in the public sector) now look at stipended "service" positions like AmeriCorps--as relatively inexpensive and very temporary labor for nonprofits, because nonprofits don't need to pay more and they can deliver their services regardless of how much turnover or churning there is among their employees.

    The Great Recession clearly has a deleterious effect on AmeriCorps graduates using their service experience to find their way into careers, since many agencies cannot find the additional resources to hire and keep their AmeriCorps personnel--and in fact are often cutting back on staffing because of continuing reductions in charitable and philanthropic support. Based on your comments and those of so many others here, we should ask readers to weigh on how to improve AmeriCorps (from the top levels at CNCS and at the White House) so that it can function better as a pathway for people to enter the nonprofit sector for full-time careers. Thanks again for your comments.

    May 19, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Do you know what the AmeriCorps stipend amount was in 1994?

    May 22, 2010
  • Sorry, I couldn't recall, but I found this in a GAO report on the first year of AmeriCorps: "In addition to the education award, AmeriCorps*USA participants receive a living allowance stipend that is at least equivalent to, but no more than double, the average annual living allowance received by VISTA volunteers—about $7,640 for full-time participants in fiscal year 1994." (http://www.gao.gov/archive/1995/he95222.pdf)

    May 22, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Rick! I guess this means it was somewhere in between $7,640 and $15,280. I was wondering how the initial AC stipend compares with the current annual stipend, which is in the $11,000 range. Specifically, have there been any cost of living adjustments over the past 16 years, during which time the cost of renting has probably tripled? The only people who can survive on the stipend now are those who are lucky enough to have somewhere they can live rent-free.

    May 23, 2010
  • I'll look for the history of AmeriCorps cost-of-living changes for the stipend. It doesn't seem to have increased with the rate of inflation over the years, even with the very low inflation rates of our Great Recession years. It is hard to make a go of it on $11,000 or thereabouts without finding ways of sharing expenses with others. On the web, there are several places that offer advice to AmeriCorps participants about how to survive on AmeriCorps stipends, obvious sharing housing costs with roommates being an essential component of strategy.

    When I was with an AmeriCorps national, I remember always pushing for the high end of the stipends, but not just as a matter of having AmeriCorps participants (who we placed with urban Community Development Corporations) have enough money to live, but to attract them to work with CDCs as an attractive career options.

    May 23, 2010
  • Anonymous

    To answer you, I was recently offered an AmeriCorps position that pays $1,000/month, but was informed by the recruiter that "after taxes, it'll be about $800/month". There is no provision for housing, so I would have to somehow pay rent and groceries, plus the cost of moving across the country and furnishing whatever space I live in, all on $800/month. I was genuinely shocked that housing was not provided by the program - if I choose to do this program, at least half of my monthly salary will be going toward rent.

    Jul 21, 2010


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