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September 11, 2014

This piece was authored by Shirley Sagawa and Deborah Smolover of America Forward.

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When the first AmeriCorps members took their oath to “get things done for America,” neither national service nor the idea of social innovation was widely known or understood. Twenty years later, while not necessarily a household name, AmeriCorps is well known among college students looking for their first jobs, and has clearly demonstrated the power of service to provide the human capital needed to boost early reading, propel low-income youth to college, rebuild after disasters, and navigate the complex array of services intended to help families lift themselves out of poverty.

However, less well understood is the role that AmeriCorps has played in fostering social innovation – that is, the process of identifying new solutions to challenges, testing them, making adjustments and then taking them to scale. The challenge that social entrepreneurs – the intrepid drivers of the social innovation process – typically face is a combination of financial and human capital. So it is not surprising that these resourceful social change agents – including Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children’s Zone, Kirsten Lodal of LIFT, Jill Vialet of Playworks, and Michael Lombardo of Reading Partners -- have identified the idealistic human capital that comes with AmeriCorps funding as a scaling strategy.

It’s equally compelling that so many individuals who have served in AmeriCorps have gone on to become social entrepreneurs in their own right – from Teach for America alums Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin who founded KIPP Academy, to Volunteer Maryland alum Rhonda Ulmer, a community college graduate who turned around her own children’s school by founding Parent University. This week, AmeriCorps Alums National Leadership Award winners who were “Made in AmeriCorps” included people like Sondra Samuels, an alum from the first AmeriCorps class who now leads the Northside Achievement Zone to end multigenerational poverty in northern Minneapolis, and Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, an alum who is now a school principal in the Bronx and founder of Project Nathanael, a tuition-free school in Haiti.
Unfortunately, the full potential of AmeriCorps remains unrealized, due to underfunding at the federal level. When President Clinton, with the help of First Lady Hillary Clinton, founded AmeriCorps the goal was to make 100,000 positions available each year. Two decades later, that goal has yet to be reached.

It’s time to change that. We need to get to 100,000 positions and keep reaching beyond. Research by Roll Global and the Franklin Project shows that as many as one million young adults each year want to serve. We can one day meet that demand through these strategies:

Fully fund the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. It’s not too late for President Obama to work with Congress to find the resources necessary to scale national service.

Create agency corps at every level of government. Agencies of the federal government have a long track record of creating national service programs to address their missions. For example, FEMA estimates that its AmeriCorps program will save taxpayers $60 million a year. President Obama last year issued an executive order to stimulate more corps like this. States and local governments also can, and have, created corps of their own.

Stimulate innovation through a certification process. Designation as a national service program should not be dependent on federal funding. New programs should move through a certification process to give applicants the assurance that they meet quality standards. This seal of approval can stimulate private sector investment to enlarge the funding pie for national service.

America Forward is working on these goals. We hope that the President and Congress will get behind them too. Together we must reaffirm the oath to “get things done for America.”

To learn more about the 20th Anniversary of AmeriCorps, please visit this link

Deborah Smolover is  Executive Director of America Forward. Shirley Sagawa is Senior Policy Advisor of America Forward. America Forward is a nonpartisan policy initiative of New Profit Inc.

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