Pros and Cons of Doing a Service Year

By Liz Hensler
July 17, 2020
Cover photo belongs to Corporation of National & Community Service

My senior year of university I was shooting the sh*t with one of my favorite professors (Hi Dr. Kibbe!) and she asked every graduating student’s least favorite question: what are you doing next? I told her I was most interested in joining the humanitarian or non-profit sectors. She recommended three options: New York City, Washington D.C., or the Peace Corps. In my last few months of college, I applied for entry-level role after entry-level role. I interviewed for jobs as a canvasser for less than minimum wage, paid internships, part-time office assistants – all positions I did not want. As the summer started, I had moved back in with my parents and taken up knitting (badly, I might add – I still have that hideous blanket as a reminder to keep myself busy). I started filling out Peace Corps and AmeriCorps applications, spending hours at a favorite coffee shop. After a few rounds of phone and video interviews, I was thrilled to be hired as an AmeriCorps State and National member with a childhood literacy non-profit in NYC. This was my entry point to a non-profit career path – one many of my colleagues have also walked.

Me, circa 2014 – Check out that baby face and awful side braid!
What is AmeriCorps?

AmeriCorps is a service organization – funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which mobilizes thousands of of people per year through full-time placement in non-profits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups. This call to service has historically been supported by presidents on both sides of the aisle – with the exception of the current administration.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

President John F. Kennedy Jr.’s call to service with his adminstration’s founding of the Peace Corps

The Trump Administration’s proposed Fiscal Year 2021 Budget states under the heading Stopping Wasteful and Unnecessary Spending, “The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) (including AmeriCorps). Funding paid volunteerism and subsidizing the operation of nonprofit organizations is outside the proper role of the Federal Government. To the extent these activities have value, they should be supported by the nonprofit and private sectors and not with Federal subsidies provided through the complex Federal grant structure run by CNCS.” (See more budget analysis here!) As a note: this is just the administration’s proposed budget and will look vastly different after Congressional negotiations and review. This is not the first time this administration’s proposed budget includes cutting CNCS, a proposal that has been unsuccessful over the previous three years. It does pose the question, however, about the value add of CNCS and service programs to our society. As someone who completed two terms and gained a lot of personal value from the programs, I have a significant bias for them, but recognize that service programs like AmeriCorps have significant flaws and equity and “do no harm” considerations that should be scrutinized and remedied.

Pros

Maximizes impact: The NGO industry is famous for stretching a dollar to its maximum potential. Frequently, organizations are understaffed and under-resourced, both of which limit the impact their programs can have. Through AmeriCorps grants, organizations get the benefits of additional full time, dedicated staff, a new pipeline of potential hires, and the ability to expand or deepen their geographic reach. AmeriCorps members work across service areas – from education, disaster relief, food access, health, veterans’ services, etc – allowing the organizations to provide vital services to more people.

Education subsidies:
As part of compensation for your AmeriCorps service, many programs award the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award. This award (roughly a little over $6K per service term) allows Corps members to utilize these funds to pay off student loans, cover costs related to education (textbooks, for example), or future education costs. For me, this relieved some of the financial burden of starting graduate school – however, the caveat is that the award is considered taxable income, so I recommend spacing out its usage over time.

Network: As I said up top, many of the colleagues I’ve had in my career were once service members – AmeriCorps or other. For me, beginning my career with a close knit team and fierce advocates opened doors to future roles and created valuable spaces of listening and learning. I gained as much, if not more, in my service terms as I did from any of my academic experiences and subsequent roles. It was during this time that I was forced to confront my privilege head on, as well as learn to be an effective member of my newfound community.

Work experience: The practical skills I gained during this period are still very much in use in my career today. I was able to explore an externally facing role, create projects that suited my skill set and career goals, gain confidence and expertise in public speaking and volunteer management – all with more intensive support, guidance, and resources than I might have had in a different role.

Cons

Corps Member Demographics: In 2018, CNCS published a data set on the demographic makeup of Corps members over three years. Each year, more than half (~54-55%) of respondents identified their race as White. This speaks, in part to the financial privilege that White Americans hold, allowing them to take on low paying service years at higher rates than non-White American peers (see my next point). There are serious and valid concerns about perpetuating White Saviorism in placing well-intentioned White volunteers in predominantly Black and Brown low-income communities – particularly without any cultural fluency training.

The prototypical savior is a person who has been raised in privilege and taught implicitly or explicitly (or both) that they possess the answers and skills needed to rescue others, no matter the situation.

Jordan Flaherty, No More Heroes

Low pay: Technically, although many service positions require a full time schedule (1700 hours over a year), Corps members are “paid volunteers”. This translates to a barely livable, or unlivable stipend. With the move to NYC, which is an incredibly expensive city, my stipend was not high enough to make rent and eat. As part of our on-boarding, we were taken to a government office to apply for EBT (or food stamps).

The stipend “enables you to live very frugally, like the community you are serving. The allowance is based on poverty rates for a single individual in your geographic area.”

AmeriCorps VISTA FAQs

My team ended up being my core social circle, as many of my friends from my previous life were financially better off and able to meet at restaurants, etc that I couldn’t afford. I was lucky in my first service term to receive some rental support from my family, but that luxury is not afforded to all. Without a safety net of family or other support, the low pay is a huge deterrent for possible service members – particularly people from low income backgrounds. This financial deterrent perpetuates a cycle of privilege in the socioeconomic makeup of Corps members.

Program Design: Not all placements are equally well-positioned to be supportive of their Corps members. In applying to service positions, do not assume that because the program (NGO, public agency, etc) received a grant to host Corps members, it is equipped to set you up for role success. Programs, like my role at Reading Partners, rely heavily on AmeriCorps members for everything from program implementation, fundraising, volunteer recruitment, and communications. Due, in part, to their return on investment, RP deployed core resources into member training and development, networking opportunities, special initiatives, and some room to grow (i.e. hiring into full time roles). However, I have heard nightmare experiences from some peers, who arrived for the first day of service finding no support, no job description, and no supervision. For those considering stepping into a service year, do your due diligence on the organization you will be serving and use the Corps member networks to get an inside scoop on the day-to-day.

If you are interested in pursuing a service year, learning more about it, or sharing your own experiences in service, comment below or contact us!

Liz Hensler, MPA (she/her/hers) is the founder of Do Good, Better. She works in philanthropy in the humanitarian aid sector and has a background in NGO program management, corporate and community engagement, volunteer management, and communications. She is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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