By Suzanne Perry
The nonprofit world will take a break from its economic woes and celebrate a big political victory on Tuesday when President Obama signs landmark legislation that boosts national service, volunteerism, and innovative social projects.
The president, fulfilling a campaign pledge to greatly expand government programs to get Americans to serve their country by doing good, is set to sign the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act during his first 100 days in office — a timeline that pleases national-service advocates for its symbolic significance.
The signing ceremony will take place at the SEED School of Washington, D.C., an inner-city charter boarding school, in the company of dozens of nonprofit leaders who united to push the legislation forward and members of Congress who shepherded it to passage with exceptional bipartisan support.
The event is expected to pay special tribute to Sen. Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, a leading sponsor of the bill, who is now ill with a brain tumor. Senator Kennedy forged a partnership with Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, to champion the bill — and the Utah senator easily persuaded the Senate to name the bill after his Democratic colleague.
The signing of the act is the second key commitment to nonprofit groups that Mr. Obama is following up on. Last week, the White House confirmed that the Office of Social Innovation, a unit that will focus on ways to get nonprofit groups and other organizations involving in solving the nation’s problems in new ways, will be headed by Sonal Shah, a former Google executive.
Forces Behind the Legislation
The Serve America Act is a victory for two coalitions of nonprofit groups that zeroed in on the 2008 presidential campaign in a bid to get lawmakers to expand the country’s national-service programs and provide money for entrepreneurial approaches to social problems.
America Forward — a coalition of more than 70 groups that started in 2007 and includes civic-engagement organizations like America’s Promise Alliance, Citizen Schools, Public Allies, and Year Up — urged all of the candidates to introduce “social investment” funds to help nonprofit groups expand innovative and proven strategies for tackling poverty, school achievement, and other issues. Mr. Obama endorsed the idea and the Serve America Act includes a new Social Innovation Funds pilot program with similar goals.
That program emphasizes the importance of documenting which methods work, which distinguishes this legislation from earlier national-service bills, says Vanessa Kirsch, president of New Profit Inc., a group in Cambridge, Mass., that manages America Forward.
“Each generation and each president has put a mark on service,” she says. “The unique and defining arc that Obama is putting on is a focus on results and impact.”
A separate coalition, ServiceNation, emerged in 2008 to press presidential candidates to expand the country’s national-service programs, which had not been updated since 1994, when President Clinton signed a bill creating AmeriCorps into law.
Arguing that Americans were looking for ways to help the country, especially following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the coalition persuaded both Mr. Obama and his Republican rival, John McCain, to attend a high-profile forum in New York on the seventh anniversary of the attacks to discuss their notions of “service.”
Both candidates agreed to support legislation to expand national-service and volunteer programs, thus sealing the bipartisan approach to the effort. Republicans have been generally more skeptical than Democrats about national service, some arguing that the spirit of volunteerism is best nurtured without government intervention.
But Senator McCain sees the issue through the prism of his military service, a perspective that ServiceNation has worked to nurture by involving military leaders in all of its activities.
Once Mr. Obama, who worked for nonprofit groups early in his career, won the presidency, the national-service movement benefited from two White House advocates. Michelle Obama — who opened the Chicago office of Public Allies, which trains AmeriCorps members for nonprofit and public-service jobs, in the 1990s — said she would work to promote national service as first lady. (See an article from the Chronicle’s archive about Public Allies and how it played a role in influencing the national-service plan.)
Advocates like Civic Ventures, a nonprofit group that promotes “meaningful” work opportunities for oder people, also tapped into the growing movement to get baby boomers to put their expertise to work for the public good. Such groups persuaded Congress to create new programs to encourage people age 55 and above to volunteer for nonprofit groups, including Silver Scholarship Grants and Encore Fellowships.
ServiceNation — which now counts almost 200 members, led by the groups Be the Change, City Year, Civic Enterprises, and the Points of Light Institute — does not consider its work done now that the Serve America Act is about to become law.
The goal is “not just to fight for the legislation, to get the money, but to make sure the programs work,” says Alan Khazei, founder of Be the Change, in Cambridge, Mass.
Money to Be Committed Later
While the Serve America Act outlines federal programs that can now expand or start operating, Congress still has to allocate money to pay for them. That can be tricky give the federal government’s pressure to cut the federal budget deficit. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the new activities could cost close to $6-billion over five years.
President Obama proposed in February increasing the budget of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency that operates national-service programs, to $1.13-billion in 2010 — up from almost $890-million this year. But Sandy Scott, an agency spokesman, said the administration is now reviewing the numbers, which may need to be increased to pay for the legislation’s new programs.
The corporation is also still waiting for the president to appoint a new chief executive to replace David Eisner, who stepped down in November.
The Serve America Act does not take effect next October 1, but nonprofit groups and state national-service agencies are now brainstorming about how to take advantage of it.
The Washington State Commission for National and Community Service, for example, is thinking about planning a “service summit” to bring together nonprofit groups, volunteer centers, foundations, and others to discuss the best way to use volunteers to respond to local needs in areas like health care, weatherization of housing, and rising unemployment.
“How can service be the strategy by which we enable the community resiliency to develop in places that are very, very hard hit?” says Bill Basl, executive director of the Washington commission and chair of the American Association of State Service Commissions.
Meanwhile, some national-service advocates are hoping the bipartisan response to the Serve America Act will rub off on other issues. “This offers a little bit of a roadmap for the other challenges this Congress and president need to address,” says Mr. Eisner.