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H.R. 1: How Your Organization Can Engage Volunteers to Plan for an Unknown Future in Regard to National Service Funding

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This blog is one of our tools to share tactics, trends, and news about the volunteer engagement world. We also publicly address issues that our clients, workshop participants, and colleagues across the continent consistently raise. Rarely, however, have we had such a pressing issue to address than what has been going on in the US Congress over the past few weeks and will continue over the upcoming days. People have been frequently asking us about the proposed budget cuts that would eliminate federal funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service, to predict what might happen, to sort through what it would mean for their organizations and for their communities, and to shed light on why they should care.

While many are mobilizing for or against the resolution, we believe it is critical to understand the scenarios that might occur and the potential impacts of each in order to inform your opinion and your actions.

First, for a brief overview of the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act for 2011, otherwise known as H.R. 1, read VolunteerMatch's blog post, "What Nonprofits should know about H.R. 1". In short, the bill, which reduces 2011 discretionary funding (which comprises just 12% of the overall federal budget) by close to $100 billion, was passed by the House in February and is currently under debate in the Senate.

Many have asked us to predict what will happen and, truth be told, neither we nor anyone knows for certain what will happen by the end of this debate. Basically, we see three options:

1.       Funding for the Corporation could be continued through the rest of this year at FY 2010 levels; in other words, little change.

2.       The proposed cuts could be passed and the agency's funding would be eliminated entirely.

3.       The Corporation's budget could be cut significantly - possibly 20% or more - dramatically changing the work and programs.

While we can't predict which of these scenarios will come to pass, we do believe that, even if this isn't the end of the Corporation for National & Community Service, this will not be the end of the debate. In other words, if the Corporation survives with current funding or slashed budgets, this discussion is very likely to be raised again for FY 2012 and beyond. So, it's all the more important to understand what such cuts would mean for your community and for your organization. The first step to understanding is learning how the Corporation and its programs, including Senior CorpsAmeriCorps, and Learn and Serve America, are currently serving your area.

How can you do this? Here's what we recommend:

1.       Convene a task force. Engage a group of volunteers and staff to work together to research the national service programs that are currently serving your community. They can start by searching for state-specific information on theCorporation's website. Simply scroll down to the "National Service in Your State" box on the left navigation bar and use the drop-down menu to select your state. They can also contact the Corporation's state officesstate service commissions, local volunteer centers, and partner organizations to learn more.

  • Explore the impacts. This task force should then briefly document the services currently being provided by volunteers and national service members working through the national service programs:
    • Senior Corps (RSVP, Foster Grandparents, and Senior Companion programs)
    • AmeriCorps (AmeriCorps*State and National, AmeriCorps*VISTA, and AmeriCorps*NCCC)
    • Learn and Serve America (Learn and Serve America grants, resources, and recognition programs)

Who are the beneficiaries of those programs? How are their lives being affected by the work of these volunteers? What critical services are currently being provided?  Then, the tough conversation: What would happen if the national service programs were cut-by 10%, 40%, or 100%? Without national service support, what programs and services would disappear - and what potential impacts can you project?

2.       Make a plan. The answers to the questions above should inform the group's recommendations about actions. What actions do you want to take? Short term actions could include calling your Congressional representatives to share your views on the bill; long term actions could include reaching out to the sponsoring organizations that currently house national service members  to learn what their plans are if the programs are reduced or eliminated. How can your organization help, collaborate, or fill emerging niches? The task force should think critically about what role your organization can and should play in light of these developments. The organization and your volunteers can:

a.       Educate others about this bill and its potential impacts on your community

b.      Advocate for one or more scenarios

c.       Plan for program development or support to sustain critical services that might be cut or reduced in your community, depending on the outcomes of these debates.

There's a lot of talk in the sector right now about picking up your phones to call your Senators and Representatives-and that may be your chosen course of action. But we also think there is an opportunity to engage volunteers to work with you right now to better understand how this - and future bills - would impact your community and the services provided to your schools, colleagues, neighbors, and environment. Only then can you begin strategizing how your organization can collaborate with other organizations to fill some of the voids that will likely be created by significant cuts to the budget. It's about coming together and figuring out how to sustain the pieces that are working - often for the most vulnerable people in our country.

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