My good friend K. has got my back – she volunteers with me, comments on my blog, and best of all – gives me content. So, I was especially thankful for her find of Blue Avocado’s post by Rick Cohen on AmeriCorps and the Serve America Act. While Kate Goyette provides one rebuttal on the AmeriCorps Alums blog, I’d like to offer another response. In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I served two terms of AmeriCorps and am currently involved in the Alums network as a Chapter Leader. I also want to reiterate that this particular debate has to do with public policy and volunteerism…so keep that in mind.
Cohen argues that public policy and the allocation of funds for volunteer programs is limited by a lack of support for capacity building programs and a failure to acknowledge that nonprofit work requires a unique and valuable set of skills. He advocates for equal treatment (in terms of pay and benefits) for nonprofit employees compared with the public and private sectors, a more strategic use of stipended volunteers (like AmeriCorps members), and a little critical thinking. My take? Hard to argue with…
But, people love to argue. Many comments on the post and other rebuttals focus on Cohen’s supposed criticism of AmeriCorps programs (he really just says that members should be supplemental to staff but are often used as substitutes). Why the backlash? In my opinion, readers are threatened by the idea of cuts in volunteer programs (AmeriCorps in particular) because of the volatility of the nonprofit sector, making them afraid to criticize public policy that supports their cause (hence the sacred cow thing).
You can go read Blue Avocado yourself, so I won’t spend any more time agreeing with Rick, but I do want to make a few points of my own. First of all, the way AmeriCorps programs are set up blows my mind – there are so many different formats that I can barely explain how it works. While flexibility is good, I think the result of programs (particularly State/National) is a lot of “patting each other on the back” by State Commissions for Community Service, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and local AmeriCorps programs. What good would it do them to admit that their Corps members aren’t being trained well or are underutilized or overworked by host sites? Apparently not much. I think true corps-based programs like NCCC or the other conservation corps with more staff oversight and structure are better formats, as is VISTA’s strategy where all members undergo the same training before beginning work at their site. There also need to be some checks and balances in the system – who is really scrutinizing the programs and ensuring that corps members, the host sites, and the grant-making parties are all getting the biggest bang for their buck?
My second point is that a shift toward higher salaries in the nonprofit sector will take more than public policy, though that may be a start. Many large funders rely on databases like Guidestar.com and Charity Navigator to see where organizations spend their money. Any organization with high administrative costs automatically gets a lower rating on these sites, discouraging the idea that paying for staff benefits, salaries, and training can actually increase the effectiveness of an organization. The difficulty in rating nonprofits is their distinctive mission-based approach – they can’t be analyzed solely on income like companies in the private sector. So, how can we address this issue? Is there another way to rate nonprofits other than just looking at the breakdown of their budget? I think we need a cultural shift in values and perceptions where employee benefits are seen as an essential part of nonprofit operating expenses. There are too many employers that create low-paying (often part-time) positions and avoid offering health insurance, training, 401(k), etc to limit expenses and please their donor base.
Lastly, I’d like to point out that Cohen’s solution to mandating pay levels for government contracts given to nonprofit organizations is more complicated than it might sound (though there is precedence for such policy as set by the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires certain wages for government contracts in construction projects). Historically, government offered contracts to nonprofits to provide services that could not be provided by the public sector. In the recent past, many government entities have offered contracts to private companies as well as nonprofit organizations, which has forced nonprofits to be competitive in the private market. This has created a great strain for many nonprofits, as they are more restricted than private companies in their ability to generate capital since they can’t issue stock. By mandating higher wages without offering support for nonprofits to access capital, policy could make it even more difficult for organizations to compete for government contracts.
So, go out! Be critical! Do a little research on how nonprofits treat their employees before you donate. Demand a reasonable wage and benefits when you apply for jobs in the nonprofit sector. If you’re an AmeriCorps member, stand up for yourself if you aren’t being supported or you’re being asked to do duties beyond your job description. And, don’t be afraid to question federal policies – even when they are helping you make a living. Future generations of nonprofit workers will thank you…I promise.