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We Need a New System for Service

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The recent passing of former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver gave us all a somber reminder about the power and beauty found in serving others. Shriver, who helped create the Peace Corps, understood that the desire to serve neighbor and nation is a fundamental human need. Importantly, he also grasped the notion that service programs achieve the greatest good for the most people when they are implemented as smart, coordinated systems.

Today, as we commemorate the Peace Corps' 50th anniversary and look to move service into high gear, we need a new system for service. Because while peoples' desire to serve is still strong, the institutions through which those people organize and deliver service are facing new and unprecedented challenges.

There are now more than 40,000 international nongovernmental organizations devoted to serving those in need. In the U.S., Service Nation is committed to bringing the Peace Corps to scale and in Europe, the European Union has declared 2011 to be the European Year of Volunteering. While it might seem as if the world is awash in a profound commitment to volunteerism and service, we should be careful not confuse an abundance of activity with ease of outcome. Many, if not most, volunteer organizations achieve heroic results despite their challenges of reaching the people that need them, their shoestring budgets, and the difficulties they face in activating and deploying their volunteers.

The service organizations on which we are pinning our hopes are struggling because they are being pressured on two fronts. First, with government and private-sector revenue declining in many economies, the world is looking to the service sector to do even more to help address some of today's most difficult challenges. Second, a combination of globalization, digital technologies and the empowerment of citizens through access to more and better information has changed the way the world works. Service organizations must now find a way to function within -- and take advantage of -- many complex, interconnected global systems. For example, while a nonprofit in New Jersey might have the ability to quickly and easily purchase books from Australia -- thanks to a well-established global system supporting commerce -- it is not able to identify local residents who are interested and qualified to read those books to children.

So how can we apply Shriver's inherent understanding of service as a system in a way that meets our 21st century realities and growing global needs? That was the common goal that brought together global leaders from nonprofits, corporations, academia and government for an online collaboration event called Service Jam, which was sponsored by IBM. More than 15,000 thought leaders from 119 countries joined the three day discussion, including former President George HW Bush, former Senator Harris Wofford, and Patrick Corvington, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Developing coherence across the global service community is a daunting challenge. But complex systems like this have been coordinated before; from international transportation networks to the global
retail industry. The Jam participants collectively determined that the global service community could function better -- i.e. could serve more people -- if it improved in four key areas:

  • Service learning. Make service and project-based learning universal by making it part of how children are taught and connecting it directly to the educational standards. If we do, we'll have more citizens who can conceive, execute and deliver service programs.
  • Volunteer management. Develop a more thoughtful, structured approach to the recruitment, development, management and retention of volunteers around the world. This includes a more disciplined process for matching supply and demand and developing the right volunteer incentives and rewards.
  • Partnership. Successful partnerships require careful planning, common goals, and rigorous management. They are not simply mergers designed to share resources and reduce costs. Nonprofits, the private sector, and governments must develop more structure and discipline in how they approach and execute partnerships.
  • Measuring impact. Measuring the success of service is difficult today because there are no agreed-upon standards. Choosing the right metrics and improving the science of measuring impact and evaluating social return will be vitally important.

In the complete Service Jam report you will find specific commitments from IBM to support the key findings. IBM also aims to put those findings into practice as part of its Centennial Celebration of Service. On June 16, IBM will celebrate its 100th anniversary as a corporation. To help mark this occasion, IBMers will join with their clients, business partners, friends and families to volunteer their time and apply their expertise to civic challenges and societal needs. It will be an example of a new and innovative system of service. I encourage you to visit ibm100.com where you can learn more and join in the effort.

Whether we are setting up disaster relief services in Haiti or dishing out meals at a local soup kitchen, we all want a system for service that allows us operate more effectively. Service Jam represents an important first step, providing a roadmap for developing such a system. The success of any system that evolves will depend on those of us in the service community rallying around a common goal. As Sargent Shriver showed us, that goal is to make the world work better through service.