Posted by Morgan St. Jean on February 6, 2012

I love to volunteer and have been doing it since I was a kid. But what I did after college as an AmeriCorps VISTA was not volunteering, it was a full time service commitment. Many of you may think I am drawing a false dichotomy. Other might be asking wait, doesn’t VISTA stand for Volunteers in Service to America? Technically, yes that is what VISTA stands for, but the name is misleading. We at ServeNext want to challenge the way the national service experience is described.

Morgan with a fellow VISTA member and two student volunteers at a MLK Jr., Day of Service they organized.

In these tough economic times there is a lot of talk about the need to cut government spending. Lawmakers are looking for easy cuts that make nice sound bites.  Case in point, Congressman Marlin Stutzman (IN-03) recently introduced the “Volunteer Freedom Act.” The bill would eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which oversees AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, the Social Innovation Fund.

Why does Congressman Stutzman want to eliminate CNCS and national service programs? In his press release he says volunteers shouldn’t be paid. If you didn’t know anything about national service programs, saving $10 billion dollars in tax payer money by not paying people to volunteer sounds like a smart decision.

Of course, we know the huge impact these programs have on communities. So how can we convince Congressman Stutzman and others to support CNCS? Well, first we have to stop making it so easy to depict us as expendable.

We can do this by attacking two major assumptions: that we are just volunteers and that national service is just another inflated government program. This blog post focuses on the volunteer assumption, but look for a follow up blog on how national service actually saves money.

When a lot of people first hear about CNCS they make a false assumption that it’s just paying people to volunteer. This naturally leads to the question, why pay people to volunteer? If they really cared wouldn’t they just do it for free?

When I first heard this, my first instinct was to yell, “Yeah I was volunteering, but I worked really long hours and got paid way below minimum wage.” But then I realized that this just plays into their hand because it: a.) focuses the conversation on how much we get paid and b.) reinforces the idea that we are volunteers.

We need to make the conversation about how we are members, not volunteers. Serving in a full time AmeriCorps program is a big commitment. A lot of people are not comfortable calling it a job (I think it would really help our case if we did, but that’s a whole other discussion), but we need to communicate that it is more than a regular volunteer commitment.

Most volunteering is part time, a few hours a week or for some a few hours a year. Volunteers perform important work in their communities. But who organizes the volunteer opportunities, recruits volunteers, and train people to maximize their volunteer impact? Service members do!

There are many part  time national service programs, such as Senior Corps or Students in Service. But these programs ask a higher commitment  level than most volunteer opportunities. Organizations and communities benifit when people make a long term commitment and the service members take a lot from the experience.

As service members, individuals serving through CNCS perform both direct and indirect service and build the capacity of the organizations they serve with. By committing to the length of their term, national service members can engage in in-depth projects that really build the capacity of an organization and have lasting impact.

These are my thoughts.  What do you say when someone calls corps members volunteers? How do you describe your experience? We would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on how to respond to politicians assumptions about CNCS. You can either comment below or post on our facebook wall.

Also, if you want to share your story with Congressman Marlin Stutzman he has both facebook and twitter.


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