Last week I was in DC helping run the State Service Commissioner Institute presented by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), Project TASC of JBS International, and the America’s Service Commissions.  As I sit here, back in Denver I am amazed that after my 14 years of working with state service commissions and AmeriCorps, how many people are still unaware of them.  When I mention that I train and consult with AmeriCorps, I often still have to say, “you know…it is the domestic Peace Corps.”  It is still a bit of a well kept secret and that is a shame.  One of the topics I have done extensive work on with AmeriCorps programs nationally is performance measurement and evaluation.  So what I know to be true is that the vast majority of these programs are providing fabulous service to their communities and making a significant impact – because I have helped them figure out how to measure it!

What is AmeriCorps? 

For those of you that don’t know, AmeriCorps is a National Service program that places members (aka volunteers) at nonprofits and state/local government agencies, often in teams, to provide volunteer service addressing identified community needs.  Full-time members give 1700 hours of their time, receive a tiny monthly living stipend, and at the end of their service commitment an educational award of $4725 to pay for additional schooling or past educational debt.  While the majority of members are in the 20’s, there is no upper age limit and it is not uncommon to see 20 somethings working alongside people in their 40’s, 50s, and 60s from a wide range of backgrounds!  The monthly stipend is great, in my opinion, as it levels the playing field allowing people of any financial background to participate – not just those whose parents can afford to support them while they serve!

AmeriCorps programs are designed by community agencies to meet specific local needs in the areas of education, environment, public safety, human needs, and disaster services.  Members provide direct service working with the beneficiaries of their hosting organization doing such things as tutoring students having trouble in school, running afterschool programs, cleaning up neighborhoods, developing neighborhood watch programs, assisting communities hit by disasters, running food pantries, and building homes – just to name a few.  All AmeriCorps programs are required to provide direct service to the community, provide the necessary training for members to effectively provide their service and become more civically engaged, develop partnerships among community organizations, and recruit other community members to get involved as volunteers. 

AmeriCorps is one of the National Service/volunteer programs funded by the federal government.  However, it is interesting to note that AmeriCorps programs are required to match the federal funds they receive with resources generated locally – basically dollar for dollar.  State-based AmeriCorps programs are designed locally and state commissions are able to tailor the allocation of their AmeriCorps resources to insure they meet that state’s most pressing needs.

What is a State Commission? 

There is a bipartisan State Service Commission in every state in the country except South Dakota, as well as Guam and American Samoa.  In 1993, Congress passed the National and Community Service Trust Act that created the Corporation for National and Community Service to administer and oversee National Service. CNCS is the umbrella agency for the old ACTION Agency programs – VISTA and Senior Corps (RSVP, Foster Grandparents, and Senior Companions) – plus the newer AmeriCorps and Learn and Serve America programs.  As part of the Act, any state that wanted to receive federal AmeriCorps funds based on a population-based formula needed to establish a state service commission.  Commissioners are appointed by the Governor and commissions are run by a small administrative staff.  State Commissions basically have two main mandates.  The first is to administer the AmeriCorps program in the state to insure it meets critical local needs and second is to promote service and volunteerism as a way to address local issues.  Commissions are usually housed within state government (often in the Governor or Lt. Governor’s offices) or can be stand alone 501(C)(3)s.

Why should you care?

If your company is looking to get more involved locally or at the state-level with well run nonprofits and their programs, the executive director of your state’s service commission is a great person with whom to talk.  S/he will know about opportunities to volunteer in your community, regionally, and/or at the state level.  S/he can also point you to specific programs that could use your business savvy and resources to build their capacity to do even more good in the community.  Also the reach of commissions is wide – if you support their efforts, it is a great way to get your company’s name out there in a positive way!

AmeriCorps programs go through an extensive review and training process so you know when you choose to support one of them, they have been VERY carefully vetted!

The enthusiasm AmeriCorps members have about what they are doing in local communities is absolutely infectious.  It always reminds me that I need to get out and do more volunteer work myself.  Interviewing members for various evaluations I have conducted, I am constantly amazed at how much they have learned about local issues and how to be part of the solution, not just sit around and complain. 

Get involved!  To find your state’s commission, go to: http://www.nationalservice.gov/about/contact/statecommission.asp.  From there you can click to go to your state commission’s home page which lists all the local AmeriCorps programs.  Be sure to call the commission’s executive director if you have questions or want to know more about how to get involved.  I know them all – and there is no finer group of people on the planet in my view.  And…feel free to tell them I recommended you call!