09/30/2010 01:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cities of Service Takes off

You might have missed it, but September has been a big month for the service movement, with ten new mayors unveiling city service plans to local fanfare and ten additional mayors appointing Chief Service Officers, bringing the national total of "CSOs" to 21.

When I wrote the "American Way to Change," I hoped that public problem solvers, including locally elected officials, would add volunteer and national service to the strategies they use to address the needs of their communities. Face it, when policymakers talk about how to reduce the dropout rate, revitalize neighborhoods, or reduce carbon emissions, volunteer service is typically not on the tips of their tongues. And too often, it doesn't even make the "to do" list. That's too bad. The last decades have seen volunteer work move well beyond fundraising and envelope stuffing to the gritty stuff of solving real community problems, including these.

Then New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed the country's first CSO and issued a dramatically ambitious plan for the city. His campaign to encourage other cities to follow suit has brought over 110 other mayors into a Cities of Service coalition. And his philanthropic support, along with that of the Rockefeller Foundation, made it possible for twenty other cities to hire full time CSOs for two years.

The mayors' plans are examples of what Mayor Bloomberg has called "impact volunteering":

• In Philadelphia, 60,000 volunteer "Graduation Coaches" will help young people navigate high school and succeed in college or careers, as part of Mayor Michael Nutter's goal of increasing the graduation rate to 80 percent by 2015.

• In Omaha, Mayor Jim Suttle hopes that 3,000 youth will learn business skills by participating in Lemonade Days, where they will work with volunteer adult mentors to develop lemonade stands that will raise money for the kids' savings accounts with a share going to charities of their choice.

• In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will engage the community in increasing awareness, use, and the health of the neglected Los Angeles river, which runs for 51 miles through and around the city.

• And in Newark, Mayor Booker hopes to decrease childhood obesity by recruiting volunteers to run evening physical play clinics for 2,000 children.

Sacramento, Chicago, Savannah, Detroit, Seattle and Nashville have equally ambitious plans.

Key to all of the mayors' plans are local partners -- nonprofits, corporations, schools, faith-based organizations, civic groups, and higher education institutions -- that will work together to achieve results. And powering many of the initiatives are AmeriCorps*VISTAs, provided by the Corporation for National and Community Service, to recruit and supervise volunteers.

While the success of these initiatives won't be known until they are tested, their potential is clear. And the need is great -- it's the rare city that can afford to leave any resource on the table in these tough times. And if my own research tells me anything, the mayors' calls to service will pay dividends not just in problems solved, but in stronger social capital and civic engagement.