Service Corps: Leveraging Volunteers For Community Improvement

07/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

As far as I can tell, the whole point of philanthropy is to leave a footprint bigger than your foot. That is, grantmaking must be leveraged -- well-researched, properly allocated and responsibly tracked-- in such a way that its lasting impact outweighs the initial input. Since one of CityBridge's non-negotiables is that our work follows our money, we consistently seek out grant partners that are forward-leaning in the hopes that a boost of extra capacity from us will enhance our collective bottom line of social change.

To bolster a leadership pipeline in the nonprofit sector and, by extension, improve the health of our democracy, CityBridge has invested time and time again in young adults, a demographic that is educated and capable yet still professionally malleable. Teach For America, City Year and Princeton Project 55 are three such partners that all focus on the same 18-24 year-old target group we find so compelling. By supporting these organizations for several years now, not only are we contributing to high-performing nonprofits, but we are helping to cultivate a fleet of leaders who have experience putting collective good before personal gain.

What do our partnerships look like?

  • With Teach For America, we have dedicated staff time to helping corps members navigate their options after two years of teaching in high-need urban and rural school districts across the country. TFA has always been a powerhouse recruiter and strong preparatory ground for new, talented teachers. And, true to its identity of constant improvement, TFA accepted our offer to provide corps members with the knowledge and support they need to make well-informed decisions at the end of their terms of service. So throughout this past year, CityBridge designed and coordinated a career series for corps members in the early childhood initiative (CityBridge's portfolio centers around early years) to position corps members as TFA alumni-in training. By sketching the early childhood landscape and sharpening concrete job search skills along the way, we tried to make corps members' continued commitment to early childhood education as smooth and well-informed as possible. The results? Eighteen of the 22 corps members we worked closely with throughout the year are staying in early childhood. And throughout the past year that included of dinner discussions, a resume workshop, mock job interviews and networking opportunities with leaders in the field, we were intentional about encouraging them and respecting them as educators.

  • City Year, another top shelf Americorps initiative, has focused more and more intentionally on placing its 10 corps member teams in schools to work with students in classrooms, over lunch and after school to boost literacy. This "Whole School Whole Child" initiative has gained considerable traction in New York and Boston. Our Foundation launched the DC pilot of Whole School Whole Child at DC Prep, a charter school in Northeast DC, in 2007-08. After the first year, CityBridge offered to interview major stakeholders to make sure all parties had a roadmap for the year two expansion into four schools in the traditional DC Public School system. Our findings were not earth shattering: communication, early and often, between City Year and partner sites was the key to success. Instead of just handing over a set of recommendations, though, we accompanied City Year on school site visits to ensure our recommendations were on the mark.
  • Since its inception in 1989, Project 55, an independent 501(c)(3) spearheaded by Ralph Nader and a group of his Princeton classmates, has channeled 1,200 young Princeton alumni in year-long public interest fellowships. Partner organizations range from education nonprofits to government agencies and from hospital labs to environmental think tanks. The content is varied; the energy and commitment of Princetonians finding ways to make a difference has remained constant. CityBridge has hired three Project 55 fellows in as many years (full disclosure: I joined the Foundation in September 2007 as a Project 55 fellow) and has taken a leadership role on the local steering committee to plan leadership development seminars, cultivate new partner organizations and provide career support to the eleven fellows serving in DC this past year. Our belief in Project 55 extends beyond an appreciation for the work our fellows have done for CityBridge, motivating us to enhance the group's effectiveness and reach.
  • Perhaps the greatest rule to keep in mind as a grant partner, though, is that the relationship is not an equal one. Yes, we are as committed as TFA is to close the achievement gap. And sure, City Year may have benefited from the guide we created to structure a successful after-school program. And Project 55 was definitely happy with the Fellows Forum we pulled together this May to showcase fellows' work at their organizations. But we always need to remember, in word and deed, that we play second fiddle to their work. In fact, we prefer being backstage. The organizations' leaders and participants themselves -- corps members and fellows-- are at the heart of our grantmaking and, even more importantly, the pioneers our country will increasingly look to for its leadership.

    Caitlin Sullivan joined CityBridge Foundation in September 2007 as a Princeton Project 55 Fellow and until June 19th has served as Program Manager of Educational Initiatives. Caitlin will start teaching middle school at KIPP: KEY Academy in Southeast DC as of July 1st. Her current service work includes volunteering as a sous chef at Miriam's Kitchen, an advisory board member of Jumpstart DC, a mentor with Higher Achievement Program and a member of the games management team for Special Olympics DC.