As we launch our new, merged organization we thought it would be helpful to give some details about how Service Year Alliance came to be and our strategic direction. For those who want to get into the weeds a bit, this post is for you.
The idea of young Americans doing a term of national service — what we now call a service year — is not at all new. President Franklin Roosevelt created Civilian Conservation Corps. President Kennedy created the Peace Corps. President Clinton created AmeriCorps, President George W. Bush expanded it, and President Obama promised to grow it.
The idea has endured for decades, been supported by the most powerful leaders in the world, and has tremendous impact. Yet, each of the programs mentioned above and others like them have struggled to achieve consistent support in our politics and prominence in our culture.
This is surprising on its face because of what service years do:
- Unleash the idealism and talent of America’s emerging adults to help tackle our greatest social challenges in education, health, poverty, and more;
- Provide a pathway to higher education and a career by developing 21st century skills, including for disadvantaged young people;
- Build bridges and understanding between different races, socioeconomic classes, and religions;
- Develop the next generation of leaders;
- Build the habits of citizenship and civic leadership
Given these impacts, why has this idea persisted but not scaled? And what are we going to do about it?
Why are we stuck?
Over the last 18 months, we have done extensive research, held a multi-phase listening tour with hundreds of conversations, conducted market research, and held focus groups. Based on our own experience and these findings, we can boil the challenges down to five areas:
- 70% of 14-24 year olds and their parents were not aware that there are opportunities to participate in a year of service
- Not enough proof points – those in the field know the power and impact of service years, but many outside of it range from skeptical to cautiously optimistic. We need more proof points and the data, especially against specific social challenges and in defined places.
- Insufficient engagement with other sectors, especially higher education, companies, and local government.
- Lack of knowledge sharing and support for existing service year programs that want to scale and other nonprofits that could be interested in starting service year programs but don’t know how to create them.
- Unsustainable and inconsistent political support — too reliant on presidents, and not enough champions in Congress.
- Finally, there lacked an organization outside of government — with sufficient capacity and a plan — that could take on the above needs of the field in a big, comprehensive manner.
These are, no doubt, big challenges. But here’s the thing: in each case there are specific, proven steps we can take. Catalyzing growth of services years to transform lives and our country is entirely in our hands as a movement.
What we’re doing about it?
Let’s start with the last bullet above because it sets the tone for how serious we are about this moment and the work ahead: we took the unusual step and merged three organizations into one -- not because we had to, but because it meant the best shot at success. We put mission, partners, and the communities and people we serve above all.
We’re now more efficient with our resources, complementary strategies are integrated, and a single organization is easier to work with for many of the overlapping partners.
Before getting into specific strategies, there is some important context and background, especially around our second goal. Our four-year strategic plan (2016-2019) has two overarching goals:
- Grow the number of service year positions from 65,000/year to 100,000/year.
- Create the conditions for much faster growth after 2019.
The first goal is clear enough. The second goal, while less precise and more abstract, is just as important, if not more so. As an organization and as a movement, we cannot simply be focused on a race to more service year positions. We have to focus on growth with impact and quality (and being able to prove it); we have to be focused on building a brand and reputation that attracts emerging adults to see this as the transformational experience that it is; we have to provide our field and others with tools and knowledge.
If we were just about short-term growth, then we could put our entire organization’s time and resources behind an advocacy campaign. That would work in the short-term but fail long-term in creating a sustainable movement. Instead we have a broader focus, working to create the conditions that help set up our movement for achievable boldness and a reachable vision — and that requires doing some things differently now than we have in the past.
How we’re creating the conditions for long-term growth and impact
We need to pursue three strategic shifts and build a three-part infrastructure in order to create the right conditions.
The shifts we’re pursuing
- From niche community to national movement: Service years move beyond the small circle of active supporters to a movement fueled by widespread belief in the power of service year experiences to transform lives, communities, and country.
- From program to problem solving strategy: Service years move from a niche set of small programs to a powerful problem-solving strategy embraced across sectors and deployed against an array of our most pressing social challenges. It builds on existing federal programs such as AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and YouthBuild, dramatically expanded by committed champions: policymakers across the political spectrum at all levels and leaders across all sectors.
- From fragmentation to alignment: Service years move from a fragmented field with high barriers to entry to a connected, engaged community in which new programs are nurtured, practitioners learn from one another, and people who want to serve can find positions.
The three things we need to happen to bring about these shifts
- Catalyze the supply of positions
- Unleash demand from emerging adults
- Unlock funding from public and private sources
Here are some of the big strategies to achieve these shifts and build the infrastructure:
Service Year Exchange
A state-of-the-art platform will enable young people to explore positions and service year programs to find corps members. All AmeriCorps programs are welcome to join, as are programs without AmeriCorps support, which will be reviewed and certified if they meet basic standards. Future features will include ratings, crowdfunding, and corps member benefits.
The site will also serve as a dynamic resource hub for the field, providing toolkits on growth strategies, recruitment, accessing public funding, and more.
Sustained, bold, and aggressive recruitment and marketing
To both broaden awareness and drive real interested among diverse young Americans, we will adopt an aggressive digital strategy and work with brands, media, grassroots, and partners, cultivated from a range of companies, nonprofits, and higher education. These efforts will be point young people to the Service Year Exchange.
We’re also modifying how we describe and brand service years, especially when talking to young people. In the past, messaging has been very focused on community impact, civic responsibility, and patriotism. Those are all still very important outcomes we, of course, want. But our extensive research and experience is conclusive: those reasons don’t motivate a sufficient number of young people to serve. We have to make changes.
The change we’re making is to respond to link the natural idealism of young adults with pragmatic reasons for doing a service year. So we will lead with self-interest – gain skills, get a better job, get into a better school, earn money for college, and more – and tie it to the opportunity to make a difference. We are confident this is going to make a significant difference in recruitment.
Expand against targeted needs by focusing on places and issues
Going deep against targeted needs in select places and creating cohorts to tackle specific issues, we can establish a number of powerful proof points. In the next two years, we’ll be focusing on a handful of places with a desire to solve a problem at scale with service year corps members, and target a handful of issues that have high potential for service years. We’ll learn from these efforts and build out tools and templates, and help those in the field learn from each other through online communities, webinars, and convenings.
Robust policy shop and grassroots advocacy movement
AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and YouthBuild are foundational to the movement’s future and top our policy priorities. We are also broadening our policy agenda to engage other government agencies to unlock new funding streams and reward service through higher education opportunities.
For the grassroots work, we’re continuing to build a powerful movement that will unite the hundreds of thousands of people who are passionate about this work to advocate their members of Congress. We are developing a team of Regional Field Directors, Community Team Leaders, Campus Directors, Campus Chapters across America, and a massive digital community who can flood congressional offices with calls and emails.
We have seen this work time after time in the toughest of political climates. Now we need to really expand our reach and policy scope to achieve sustained progress and move away from fire drills and crisis.
Taken together, these and other strategies in our plan add up to the first comprehensive strategic plan for the broad service year field — a plan that builds on the incredible foundation of current programs, and also challenges our field to do and think differently in certain areas. If we can inspire young Americans and make this part of our culture; if we show the problem-solving force of service years in more ways; if we can partner with other sectors in real ways; and if we can build sustainable political will, this old idea can be renewed so that it becomes what our nation needs.