- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 17, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Over the next three months, much will be made of the many fundamental differences between John McCain and Barack Obama. In one very important area, however, these candidates both reach the same conclusion: that a stronger national service system and greater citizen volunteering is critical to America’s future.

Although their personal service backgrounds are quite different - Mr. McCain from military service and Mr. Obama from community organizing - their advocacy aspires for a similar result.

The same is true for the board of directors at the Corporation for National and Community Service. While the candidates, the parties and the board members can disagree over how government should support volunteering, they share a common conviction: Getting Americans involved in service is a powerful way to lift up our neighborhoods, give purpose to the wayward, and elevate our expectations of citizenship.

Against the backdrop of an economic downturn and unprecedented natural disasters, this bipartisan support marks citizen service as a policy idea whose time has come. Last year, 60.8 million Americans gave 8.1 billion hours of their time to service. Counselors provided free tax and financial advice to low-income citizens, students helped families recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and tutors increased reading levels and graduation rates.

Madison, Wis., provides a powerful example of how sustained volunteer effort can produce important results. In 1995, African-American students there were 6 times as likely as white students to fail third grade literacy tests. By 2005, hundreds of volunteer tutors led by AmeriCorps VISTA members improved all the students’ test scores and virtually erased the performance gap.

Volunteering also provides health benefits, career skills and social connections to those who volunteer. Unfortunately, volunteering levels declined in 2006 after a three-year high, but appear to be stabilizing in 2007. We think volunteering is poised for growth as young people and boomers increasingly embrace service and nonprofits become better at managing volunteers.

Skilled management is critical, as volunteer attrition continues to be a problem: 1 in in 3 volunteers drop out from one year to the next, representing a loss of human capital valued at more than $30 billion a year.

To address this challenge, our agency surveyed the current volunteer landscape and created a blueprint for community leaders. The result is the largest and most significant evaluation of volunteering in America (www.VolunteeringinAmerica.gov), including a snapshot of how 162 cities are doing at community engagement. The findings reinforce our belief that governors, mayors, and nonprofit and corporate leaders can do more to promote conditions favorable to volunteering.

c City leaders can promote service-learning in public schools to build engaged citizens, because service habits instilled at an early age can last a lifetime.

c Employers can promote flexible schedules and telecommuting to give people more time to know and help neighbors. They can also sponsor employee volunteer and pro bono programs.

c Elected representatives at all levels should pass smart growth and transit policies, because communities with shorter commute times have higher volunteer rates.

Individuals should also assess whether they are really “too busy” to volunteer. Our research shows people who do not volunteer watch 400 more hours of TV a year than those who do volunteer. If large numbers of Americans swapped one hour of TV a week for service, volunteer rates would skyrocket and communities would improve their social and economic well-being.

As a former Republican mayor and a former senior adviser to a Democratic governor, we have personally witnessed the power of social entrepreneurs and neighbors helping neighbors. But for too long, volunteering has been seen as something that is just “nice” to do. Now the winds are changing. From Congress, to the presidential campaign, to corporate America, there is growing recognition of the vital role played by community service in tackling tough social problems.

While we believe the country needs an engaged citizenry in good times and bad, the current economic condition only further underscores the importance of citizens volunteering and serving their country. As the economy slows, community organizations struggle to provide services on smaller budgets and at higher costs. At the same time, home foreclosures and rising gas and food prices multiply the need for these services. In these times citizen service becomes even more vital to the health of our nation’s communities.

Stephen Goldsmith and Vince Juaristi, are chairman and vice chairman of the bipartisan board of directors of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that promotes volunteering and administers AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America.

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