Put the People to Work

SERVING COUNTRY AND COMMUNITY: Who Benefits from National Service? by Peter Frumkin & Joann Jastrzab

Serving Country and Community: Who Benefits from National Service?

Peter Frumkin & Joann Jastrzab

310 pages, Harvard University Press, 2010

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American society has long benefited from the work of volunteers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even institutionalized the opportunity to serve in 1933, when he created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), part of his New Deal, to combat the Great Depression. This public work relief program enlisted men age 18 to 24 and paid them a small wage along with food, shelter, and clothing. Through the program, Roosevelt was able to help 250,000 destitute men while achieving historic strides for environmentalism: CCC volunteers developed more than 800 parks and planted 3 billion trees.

Although the program was discontinued in 1942 when the United States entered World War II, America had enjoyed her first taste of national service. President Clinton revived the form in 1993 when he established AmeriCorps. This program requires volunteers to commit 20 to 40 hours a week, typically in local programs that provide services such as building, tutoring, and cleanup of public areas. Some volunteers receive modest living stipends, and most are eligible for grants to help pay for college or student loans. President George W. Bush expanded AmeriCorps, and the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, passed last year, promises to mushroom its size. Already AmeriCorps has provided volunteer opportunities for more than 500,000 citizens.

Given this legislation, write Peter Frumkin and Joann Jastrzab in Serving Country and Community, one might assume that “the slated expansion of national service is grounded in a deep and penetrating understanding of how service works and how it shapes the lives of young people.” But no such understanding exists, they say.

Indeed, despite racking up millions of volunteer hours and billions of dollars in expenses, the true value of AmeriCorps remains unexamined by both the federal government and the Corporation for National and Community Service, a public-private partnership charged with delivering national service in America. “It is still unclear,” the authors maintain, “who benefits from national service, under what conditions these programs work best, and how exactly they contribute to the strengthening of communities.” And so they wrote the book, hoping (quite rightly) to discover who exactly benefits from massive investments in national service.

Frumkin and Jastrzab begin their examination of national service’s value by identifying the visions people have of the purpose and impact of national service. After conducting a good number of interviews with leaders in the field, four distinct visions emerge: citizenship and civic engagement, personal growth, social capital, and public work. The authors define and explore each thoroughly, and name the main potential benefits in each category. They also research several national service programs, compare the data collected from those who served against similar groups who did not serve, and tick off which visions are fulfilled by each program.

The results of this study are, as the authors put it, “nuanced and at times unexpected. Positive effects are intertwined with negative effects, right alongside findings of no effects at all. Short-term and long-term effects at times coincide and at times conflict.” But in the end, national service seems to achieve all four visions in one way or another. And by the end of the book, the authors had provided one of the clearest and most concise examinations of volunteerism I have yet come across. Given the nation’s multiple programs, each with distinct yet overlapping objectives and politicians demanding various outcomes as proof of the program’s value, we need this book.

Yet I was left wondering if the authors hadn’t sidestepped the larger question facing national service: “Is it worth the expense?” Compared with the unpaid voluntary service of millions of Americans each year, who really benefi ts, and to what degree, from paid national service?

The authors answer this question only by setting aside the vast quantities of evidence they collected and reviewed and estimating “in a different way what the value of service might be on a national level.” They multiply a rather simplistic ratio of volunteer hours by the “conservative independent sector rate for the hourly value of volunteering” ($20). They then divide this number by the actual amount each program costs, concluding that “the benefits of national service outweigh its costs.” This summary argument is suspect at best, and at worst may actually argue against programs such as AmeriCorps. For many, national service programs offer “cheap” labor at too high a cost to the taxpayer. Unlike Roosevelt’s CCC, AmeriCorps is not combating the Great Depression, and it lacks the singular focus of environmentalism. It appears to be paying Americans to volunteer to work in communities—something that happens without government intervention or expense.

National service’s cost wouldn’t be a problem if it could achieve something above and beyond what traditional volunteering achieves. According to Frumkin and Jastrzab’s own research, however, this is not the case. Their conclusion that AmeriCorps’s greatest value is cheap labor seems to undermine the book’s original premise and may, in fact, arm AmeriCorps’s critics with the ultimate argument: National service costs too much and achieves too little when compared with the greater army of unpaid volunteers in America.

As the book concludes, the question remains: Who benefits from national service? I began reading Serving Country and Community as a strong advocate of AmeriCorps and other national service programs. Now I am not so sure.

Chris Jarvis is the cofounder of Realized Worth, a consulting firm that helps companies create corporate volunteering programs and social media strategies. He also writes “Realizing Your Worth,” a blog that focuses on corporate social responsibility and corporate volunteering. He has worked with nonprofits on their volunteer programs for the past 20 years.

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  • Chris - good discussion subject here; it seems to me that the CCC of old produced very tangible public assets that had real value; it’s difficult under the current definition of national service to assign the same type of tangible (i.e. empirical) value. But as we know in the creation of social capital, we can equate the real value of volunteerism and national service - people served, jobs created, people off the street, etc. As a society, in the case of national service, we are struggling with the definition of the role of government. If we can reconcile this, we’re in a much better position to apply standards and results to measure the ROI.

    My belief is that part of government’s role is to investment of communities and people - not just in infrastructure, but truly in the improvement of people’s lives. One favorite program that comes to mind from the Carter Administration was CETA - the Comprehensive Employment & Training Act. This was the type of initiative that was designed to lift people (and communities) out of their present state.

  • Chris, thanks for writing this.

    I was a member of the Illinois Commission on Volunteering and Community Service from 2001 through 2009, where we administered the National Service dollars for the state.  I come from a background of business and traditional volunteering, so have always wanted to see more evidence that involvement in a national service volunteer opportunity enhanced the non profit’s ability to accomplish its mission, or that it created habits of service, leadership and philanthropy that resulted in continued service in the years/lifetime after being a member of national service programs.

    I wrote a series of blog articles reflecting on this in June 2008, after attending the National Conference on volunteering. One can be found at

    I don’t think an effective evaluation of the impact of service can be done when we’re grouping all types of service needs in one discussion.  I’ve pointed to the Boston Innovation Hub often, because it has a pie chart of service needs important to the Boston area, and any visitor can dig deeper into any slice of the pie to learn more, and be more involved, in that particular issue.

    In each slice of this pie, it will take many years of concentrated problem solving, in many different parts of Boston, to have a significant impact on solving that particular problem. Thus, people who come into service in one of these categories without any previous preparation, has a steep learning curve before they can have a significant impact.  If they leave service after one, or two years, they are leaving when they are just beginning to build their knowledge base, and thus have more value to the non profit they serve.

    Thus, unless they are staying connected to that service agency, or category, five, ten and more years later, we may not be getting as much return on the dollars invested as we need in this country to solve the problems that face us.

    At the same time, without non profits having theory of change strategies that show how the volunteer involvement relates to the long-term mission of the organization, it would be difficult to evaluate the short term impact of low-cost labor. 

    Stanford and every other university in the country has students who are looking for research projects, and each year new students are coming to the university, while others are leaving.  If these universities begin to evaluate national service based on the mission/goals/theory of change of each slice of the Boston Innovation Hub’s pie chart, then we might build a better understanding of the different impacts of National Service in each slice of the pie.

    Is anyone doing this type of segmented research?

  • BY Jan Masaoka

    ON October 13, 2010 11:59 AM

    Very glad to see this book and this article. Volunteerism is remarkably unexamined in our society; almost every political viewpoint has a vested interest in NOT examining it. I’m glad that SSIR is taking up the issue, and thank you for an excellent review/article.

  • Franccesca's avatar

    BY Franccesca

    ON November 11, 2010 10:47 AM


    Excellent article. I’m eager to pick up this book. I do agree that the author’s assessment of volunteer worth leaves something to be desired. Additionally, there needs to be more research done on this topic, particularly, what is the dollar value of volunteerism by type (for example, skilled volunteering vs. physical labor and office labor) and how far does that dollar value extend in terms of strengthening infrastructure and encouraging growth of people and organizations. These types of metrics are difficult to develop, however are incredibly necessary given president Obama’s call to service two years ago.

  • Jennifer Harman's avatar

    BY Jennifer Harman

    ON May 8, 2012 11:00 AM

    Mr. Jarvis,

    I appreciate your opinion. However, as a current AmeriCorps member (in my second year of service) I have a couple of things I would like to say. I chose to join AmeriCorps because I wanted to gain experience in fields I might not be able to get into by just knocking on some organizations proverbial door and asking to volunteer.

    I graduated in 2009, at the age of 34, (while taking care of 2 children under the age of 5) Cum Laude from my alma mater, CSU Monterey Bay, which is a university President Clinton had a hand in creating. I could have chosen after I graduated to find a job that paid me more and helped me move up the corporate ladder. However, I chose different because I felt compelled to be a part of a community in a deeper sense, not just through volunteering. I wanted to be immersed in a community, and not have the option to choose what I would and wouldnt do to make a difference. And I got that experience for sure. *smile*

    Volunteers get a lot of things done in this country, but to imply that AmeriCorps members and fellows are just “paid” volunteers, and dont contribute more than taking money that could be placed somewhere else, is just (as my grandfather used to say) hogwash. AmeriCorps members do not get paid hardly anything; as of this moment, I make what equals close to $7.29 an hour. I work close to 40 hours a week, and barely make enough to support myself and my two children. However, I do it and have done it for the past 2 years, because this world is about more than just my life and my comfortability level.

    I did not come into this program thinking I would make big bucks. I chose to join AmeriCorps, which is considered to be the domestic Peace Corps, because I wanted to help my community. But more importantly I wanted to feel connected and LEARN from the members of my community.

    Your statement “National service’s cost wouldn’t be a problem if it could achieve something above and beyond what traditional volunteering achieves” simply shows your, and the authors, ignorance. I have not read the book, but wonder if the authors or yourself chose to speak to some of the organizations who have benefitted from having an AmeriCorps member placed with them? AmeriCorps members achieve MUCH more than what traditional volunteering achieves. We are primarily placed in agencies and communities all over the United States where there is high poverty rates, low healthcare, education, and social resources. AND most of the agencies we are placed at do not have the funding to higher more staff and usually have low numbers of volunteers which come in and help them.

    Now there are some cases of certain agencies which may be part of a larger organization, on a national level, but these are few and far between. I do believe volunteers are needed, and do great work. I am placed as a volunteer coordinator at the moment for the Volunteer Infrastructure Program through AmeriCorps, and I am thankful to all my volunteers. Their hardwork has made a difference in the programs which are part of the organization where I am placed. However, I do not believe increasing the number of volunteers in this agency would replace the work I am doing as an AmeriCorps member.

    If those in our nation believe that the money that is being “wasted” on paying AmeriCorps members to do “glorified volunteerism”, then perhaps they, and you, should go down to one of the shelters, family resource centers, food banks, or health clinics where an AmeriCorps member is placed and ask the community members and staff how their AmeriCorps member is making a difference there.

    My personal belief is that I have benefited more from the experiences I have had, and the people I have met through my service than anything I might have contributed. But that is because my heart and mind are all about giving of myself, being the hands and feet of Jesus, until there is nothing left of me to give. I want to make a difference in this world, but more than that I want to be changed by the people I meet.

    I do not say these statements with animosity or anger. I simply exhort you to gather information from both sides before making such bold and blanket statements about programs and projects that are seriously having an impact on our society. I would rather money be spent on AmeriCorps then have that money line the pockets of our so called “men and women of the people” who represent us in congress etc. We, the AmeriCorps members and fellows, are the ones on the frontlines, creating those bridges with the community, helping the overlooked and being changed for the better because of the individuals we come into contact with. Please do not disregard all that we have done, simply because the dollar signs are rolling out.

    Thank you.
    Jennifer Harman
    AmeriCorps Member AFACTR program, 2010-2011
    AmeriCorps VIP fellow, 2011-2012

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