Should MA fund Americorps? My unpopular view.

The BBJ has a good article describing AmeriCorps’ potential “do or die” funding situation in Massachusetts.

Although many of my colleagues, AmeriCorps alumni, and friends are lobbying for full funding of AmeriCorps in MA due to the federal match and their livelihoods, I find myself unsure when direct needs like food and housing subsidies, education, day programs for the needy, counseling, and substance abuse treatment are being cut in the state budget process.

I’ve been unconvinced that subsidizing below-minimum-wage positions is the best way to maximize volunteer engagement since AmeriCorps began, and now I question whether saving the Massachusetts Service Alliance should be a priority given the direct needs of the least able among us and the core educational needs of the next generation.

Direct philanthropic investment in experienced volunteer recruiters and volunteer managers paid to serve on charity staffs may be a better route to increase volunteer engagement, versus “hiring” inexperienced people with limited training and resources for short stints without long-term vision and commitment to volunteerism from charity leaders. (And if volunteers are so important, how can we be equal opportunity if we expect them to live on less than minimum wage or limited health coverage?)

There are certainly more active volunteers who are NOT in AmeriCorps than those who are in AmeriCorps, and I contend that broader, more long-term growth will occur if charitable donations are invested directly into community charities like Tenacity in the BBJ article and possibly PMD (rather than passed through a middleman-like agency operating with bureaucratic, government-imposed funding restrictions that impossibly attempts to serve our whole state and all of its communities). More charity boards of directors, executive directors, CEOs, and other leaders must encourage, support, and reward excellent volunteer programs that engage and retain volunteers, and respect, assign, and use volunteers’ time and talents effectively for ongoing and project-based commitments.

If the Massachusetts Service Alliance would expand to assist the majority of charities NOT funded by AmeriCorps that seek to increase their volunteers’ roles and numbers (as evidenced by the many applicants for Commonwealth Corps funding that I wrote about last year), then could we make more progress in our state? This need used to be addressed somewhat by the United Way of Mass. Bay until it reorganized into such tight focal areas such that volunteerism became hidden and disjointed with minimal training and services and a redundant database instead of experienced leaders at the forefront.

Dating before marriage analogy to volunteerism

Friday’s Financial Times has an article about joining nonprofit boards. PMD definitely recommends this process of getting to know the organization, its strengths, its needs, and your potential roles BEFORE you sign on for a 3+ year commitment.

Just as you generally shouldn’t propose marriage on the first date, I recommend that you don’t suggest joining our board until you’ve gotten to know us beyond our web presence. With the demise of effective board fairs, it seems like it is difficult to find appropriate board candidates (and dates) in Boston.

It starts with determining whether an organization’s mission and vision are in line with your values and motivations. Then one should volunteer/visit and engage in a “courtship” process.

PMD would be happy to court you for its board once you indicate genuine knowledge and interest. We are currently seeking a clerk and board directors.

Let’s switch focus from 3-year board governance commitments to hands-on volunteering: Although the tide is slowly turning, most charities still expect people to “marry” (i.e., volunteer hands-on) for 6 months or more without much courtship. PMD’s diverse array of one-time “speed dating” (i.e., hands-on volunteering) opportunities serves to help give people a sense of the culture, people, cause, etc. We’ve lost volunteers to ongoing commitments to some of our recipient charities, and we’ve also gained recipient charities from our volunteers who “play the field.”

These are folks who prefer not to settle down with helping just one charity. With PMD, they won’t be bored with the same volunteer activity week after week.

No Time to Waste

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t know anyone who has excess time to waste. With the preparations for PMD’s 15th anniversary, several grants to write, several corporate projects to develop, and running PMD’s regular service program, I’m working 80 hours a week and not happy about it.


So I’m irked when meetings start (and thus end) late or I read about another Big Dig fix at “no taxpayer cost “ (that will cost precious time to many drivers due to reroutings and delays in order for the fixes to be completed).


While wasted time seems to be the status quo, at least PMD service projects start and end on time. We try to respect people’s limited time and their commitment to participate for an entire PMD project. Likewise, we, particularly our volunteer project managers and recipient charities, appreciate when volunteers respect our policies about timeliness. To aid volunteers with this, we ask that they arrive 5-15 minutes in advance of the advertised start time to check and settle in, and we also provide fairly detailed directions and maps with time estimates.


Arriving late or not at all are some of the most stressful things volunteers can do to our project managers. Assignments are incomplete. Orientation must be repeated. As a result, late people don’t enjoy volunteering as much and tend to be more critical despite their being responsible for their lateness, our volunteer project managers are unnecessarily stressed, and the on-time volunteers have to compensate.


Now if only I could get PMD’s board of directors to respect each other’s time and to treat their meetings like PMD projects…. Special kudos to Martha, Danielle, and Karen, who worked with me until 10 PM to complete the invitation mailing last week.

Recruiting Board-Level Volunteers

PMD can always use help from more talented people who believe in our mission. We have done a good job of describing our mission and strategic plan as well as delineating the expectations for board directors and specific officer positions online in various board bank postings.

In the past week, I have spoken with three people who expressed interest in joining PMD’s board. All three are excellent candidates who have the experience and skills to fill specific roles and needs of our small board of directors. One seems especially motivated, whereas another has already (hopefully temporarily) withdrawn from consideration due to workload and the perception that he doesn’t have enough time.

We estimate the time commitment as 8-10 hours per month on average, but this is event-associated and no current members are contributing at this level currently.

The most common reason that people decline is that they say they can’t make the hypothetical time to doing the best job they could do…. Sometimes I feel like telling them that it would even be great to have 50% of the best job they could do since it would make a big difference to PMD compared to not having a position filled at all! After all, no one expects them to make PMD their second job or the top priority in their lives like I have. And, of course, I wonder why folks who don’t have enough time bother to contact me.

I wonder if it is better to underestimate the amount of time a volunteer position will require in order to attract more potential candidates, or to wait to fill needed positions until we identify appropriately talented people who really can put in the time we think it will really take.

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