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Hitting the Trifecta: The Volunteer Generation Fund, a Winning Federal Investment

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What do you get when you combine a school system with some of the nation's lowest fourth grade reading scores, an innovative superintendent and a business volunteer council eager to create direct and lasting impact?

  • You get committed, working volunteers spending their lunch hours with students reading, instructing and instilling a love of books and learning.
  • You get an almost no-cost, targeted intervention with the promise of measurable results in higher student achievement.
  • You get a depth of community and corporate engagement in local education that could become the essential ingredient in a school's pivot from failure to success.

You get Milwaukee.

In June of this year, the Volunteer Center's 46-member Greater Milwaukee Business Volunteer Council realized it had a challenge: how can volunteers devoted to community service and good corporate citizenship have a collective impact on a specific community issue?

Milwaukee had some of the lowest scores for fourth grade reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in the United States, so it was obvious to the council that city schools should be the target.

In consultation with the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) superintendent, the council deployed dozens of employees on their lunch hours to work directly with elementary-age children with the lowest reading scores.

It is just this kind of local, innovative leveraging that the Volunteer Generation Fund, one of the most important provisions of the 'Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act', could underwrite and replicate.

Federal policy-makers facing formidable budget deficits -- matched in scope only by the extent of the country's social and economic challenges -- need look no further than the Volunteer Generation Fund for the perfect trifecta: low cost, proven effectiveness and return on investment.

1. Even at the full $60 million funding level authorized in statute for the coming fiscal year, the fund would represent only four percent of the overall Corporation for National and Community Service budget.

2. Numerous studies have shown the effectiveness of volunteer programs on critical social needs.
  • A recent assessment of the impact of volunteer tutoring programs on the academic skills of U.S. students enrolled in grades K-8 found that volunteer tutoring has a positive effect on student achievement. Students who work with volunteer tutors are more likely to earn higher scores on assessments related to oral fluency and writing as compared to their peers who are not tutored.
  • Another randomized study assessed the effectiveness of mammography promotion by community volunteer groups in rural areas. Volunteer-led interventions increased the use of mammography among certain groups of women who were not regular users, including those in communities without female physicians and among women with no health insurance.
3. The bottom line: multiple studies have shown that investments in volunteer mobilization and utilization programs have notable returns.
  • The Michigan Coalition for Clean Forests sought to use volunteers to remove trash that had been illegally dumped on public land. The cost of the program included management, administrative, overhead and printing expenses. The benefits of the program included the value of the volunteer hours and the proceeds from the sale of scrap metals. The return on investment was $3.38 for every $1 spent. The evaluators pointed out that "these estimates place no monetary value on aesthetics of land after cleanup, number of increased visitors to the area, positive public relations with partners and citizens," and "responsible land stewardship education."
  • Other studies have even more impressive ROI results. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania on the value of volunteer programs in hospitals found "professional volunteer programs to be an increasingly integral part of providing healthcare...hospitals derive, on average, $6.84 in value from volunteers for every dollar they spend."

Fully funded at its authorized level of $60 million for FY2011, the Volunteer Generation Fund could return three to six times that amount in tangible benefits to American communities, including healthier children, higher student achievement, a cleaner environment and an engaged citizenry.

The Volunteer Generation Fund (VGF) was designed to make volunteering a vital part of achieving healthy communities through competitive grants to state service commissions and nonprofits. In particular, it speaks to the president and first lady's aspiration to engage all of the nation's citizens in tackling the challenges of our time.

The act envisioned a variety of locally grown initiatives to broaden and strengthen civic engagement in communities across the nation, large and small. The fund gives the Corporation for National and Community Service a new tool to build the ability of local organizations to mobilize people to create meaningful change where they live.

If adequately funded, VGF could elicit a range of complementary volunteer infrastructure initiatives:
  • State associations of volunteer centers and state service commissions could leverage their ability to disseminate best practices and support markets with limited volunteer infrastructure, including rural areas.
  • Social entrepreneurs could explore innovative approaches to engage a cadre of trainers deployable throughout the national service and volunteer sector.
  • Existing volunteer connector organizations could extend their reach to new populations and new volunteers from key emerging markets such as baby boomers and youth. Alternatively, a grantee may want to test new models of skill-based volunteering as a strategy for engagement
  • The web could become an increasingly robust marketplace of ideas for nonprofit volunteer managers and self-directed volunteers, emphasizing interactive tools for cost-effective applied learning.
  • Efforts supported by the fund could be paired with traditional national service programs such as Teach for America. Together they could mobilize community volunteer support or create a model of parental and community involvement that demonstrates the power of adult engagement in achieving school success.

Recently, we have seen the vital role that volunteer connector organizations, many with small budgets and a handful of employees, can play in community problem-solving. When the Cumberland River overflowed its banks and decimated Nashville, TN, in May, more than 60,000 volunteer hours were donated to flood recovery by HandsOn Nashville volunteers. During that same time period, 14,200 Nashville citizens came forward to serve in flood-related programming coordinated by HandsOn, serving in over 760 projects to aid those impacted by this disaster and to begin the slow process of rebuilding.

In August of this year, the corporation announced the first round of Volunteer Generation Fund grants. Nineteen states won awards for projects ranging from a coordinated social service response to the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Florida to statewide initiatives to promote volunteer leaders, to encourage service among specific demographic groups and to build awareness of national days of service such as Martin Luther King Day of Service and the 9/11 Day of Service and Remembrance.

Just as Milwaukee confronted low reading scores among its fourth graders, Congress and the White House face a sputtering economy and a stubborn list of societal needs in education, the environment and in economic upheaval related to job loss.

While not a complete answer, the Volunteer Generation Fund is one cost-effective and ready option for addressing our greatest concerns as a nation, galvanizing that most unique and cherished American willingness to take action, to give back and to make a difference.