We Can't Support and 'Dis' Service at the Same Time

The challenges around episodic volunteering don't arise from the nature of the short-term engagement; but, rather, they stem from the need for smart and effective execution of these programs.
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When I was CEO from 2003 through 2008 at the Corporation for National and Community Service -- which oversees AmeriCorps, VISTA, Senior Corps and other elements of the country's investment in service -- I used to talk about moving our collective perception of service from "nice to necessary." I disparaged those who undervalued service: the media, for its flippant ("feature-story") coverage of the people who decrease prisoner recidivism rates, clean up from disasters and represent 70 percent of America's fire-fighters; philanthropic foundations, for failing to equip the nonprofits they support to deploy their strongest assets in performing its critical work; and policy-makers for perennially missing opportunities to augment and strengthen programs addressing critical social issues by engaging citizens in those programs.

Those criticisms, however, mask a deeper challenge that we in the service field brought on ourselves: a badly mixed message that promotes full-time, year-long, government-funded service in a way that implicitly -- and at times explicitly -- criticizes short-term, non-immersive service, called "episodic" volunteering. Ironically it is this latter service and volunteering activities that built the ethic of American volunteering to begin with. This service is undertaken by people who do other things full-time, and who serve as time permits, usually in support of a nonprofit organization.

Disparagements of episodic volunteering have become a mantra that reverberates quietly among advocates for government funding, funders and academics: it is ineffective, it is inauthentic, it reflects the vanity of the volunteer rather than the needs of the community, it generates more cost than value for nonprofits, and it is culturally -- pick your word -- exploitative, appropriative, objectifying, insensitive, perpetuating of power and privilege imbalances.

There is a basis to these criticisms -- when there is poor planning or poor training, episodic volunteers can be a burden on nonprofits. But, this harvest of bad results is not unique to episodic volunteering. The fact is that any social change programming that is ill-conceived -- from community organizing to advocacy work, and from immersive service to philanthropic support -- will yield bad results.

Meanwhile, enormous damage is done to America's service movement when professionals judgmentally dismiss (even in whispers) the largest, most impactful, most locally driven, most historic, most organic ethic of volunteering to meet critical social needs ever driven by citizens of any country in the world. America's tens of millions of volunteers would likely be among national service's strongest supporters were the whiff of disdain were not so pronounced. This is especially true for faith-based volunteers -- by far the largest group -- and also the group most likely to feel disenfranchised from the secular service world.

Repair the World is the national Jewish service organization that envisions a Jewish community fully engaged in driving social change to improve lives and communities around it through volunteering and service. I became CEO of Repair in 2013, eager to hasten the normalization of service in the Jewish community and to realize the strengthened relationships across racial and demographic divides that I had seen service foster in the secular world. As I worked with the staff and board to achieve those goals through local pilot projects, we designed Repair the World Communities -- what has become our flagship program operating in multiple communities. In each city, our Communities model leverages eight year-long, immersive-service fellows to engage thousands of Jewish young adults to participate in service-related activities alongside them. The fellows recruit and engage volunteers to serve our mostly-secular nonprofit partners doing the best work locally with poor communities tackling education and food justice issues.

Before starting the program under the entrepreneur's credo of "launch and learn," we commissioned an Independent Evaluation of Communities' impact over its first two years to be completed at the end of 2015; Repair is currently releasing the data from that evaluation.

The data demonstrates several findings of significance to the larger service community about episodic service:

· The over 10,000 young adults who participated last year in programming in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh expanded the capacity of the nonprofit partners engaged in furthering education and food justice in the local communities. Virtually all partners asked to continue the work, and significant numbers of new organizations are now lining up to partner. (Note that Repair did not provide financial support to its nonprofit partners to ensure that partners' motivation to participate was entirely due to the benefits from the service itself.)

· A significant majority of participants are returning, with more than a third participating four or more times, signaling a robust pipeline toward deeper, sustained involvement in the work, and many are even building communities around the cause and service they care about.

· The drivers of the repeated, deepening engagement for these participants are the authenticity and the impact of the work itself, the opportunity to serve with others who care about the same things, and the opportunity to form meaningful relationships with people from communities different than their own.

· Of significant value to all -- participants, nonprofits, the community with which volunteers serve and the Jewish community -- is the adoption by Repair's service model of certain best practices from the service-learning field, especially the belief that effective service always includes three elements: hands on (direct) volunteering, contextual education, and opportunities for personal reflection.

In other words, the challenges around episodic volunteering don't arise from the nature of the short-term engagement; but, rather, they stem from the need for smart and effective execution of these programs.

I can imagine three consequential outcomes from a behavior shift where the national-service advocacy community moved from the current posture of "frenemy" with the episodic service field and, instead, embraced it as equally worthy of support from funders, policy-makers and community leaders, and better leveraged the year-long service corps to improve the quality and reach of episodic volunteering programs. First, the breadth of public support for American service would become full-throated, with the faith-based community and the broader nonprofit community becoming non-conflicted in their enthusiasm.

Second, strong alignment (real and substantive, not just public-facing) between the episodic volunteering and national-service communities would blunt the edges of partisanship, which too often play out in zero-sum optics between the progressive favor toward federally-funded year-long service programs and conservative preferences for private-citizen volunteering through community or faith-based nonprofits.

And, third, the genuine alignment of these movements -- and the subsequent service-related alignments it would allow among the policy, funding, business, academic, faith-based and nonprofit sectors -- would offer America our best chance yet for expanding the larger service movement to make both year-long and episodic service normative in our communities and to fully engage our citizens in the crucial work of understanding and addressing our social challenges.

David Eisner is President and CEO of Repair the World. Read "Building Jewish Community through Volunteer Service," a summary report on the independent evaluation of the Communities program, here.

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