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About Senior Corps 
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Hurricane Volunteer Support Fund
In the wake of the recent hurricanes, the Corporation is coordinating volunteers to assist with repair and relief efforts in areas affected by this devastating storm. Your donation will support volunteers in providing food and shelter, managing donations, helping victims get necessary assistance, and long-term rebuilding efforts.
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USA Freedom Corps Partnering to Answer the President’s Call to Service
 
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Tuesday, December 14, 2004

CONTACT: Sandy Scott
Phone: 202-606-6724
Email: [email protected]

   

“National Service at 10 Years: Lessons Learned and Future Directions”

 

MS. BETHEL: (Sounds gavel.) Good afternoon and welcome to the National Press Club. My name is Alison Bethel, and I’m Washington Bureau chief for the Detroit News and a member of the National Press Club Board of Governors.

I’d like to welcome club members and their guests in the audience today, as well as those of you watching on C-SPAN or listening to this program on National Public Radio. Please hold your applause during the speech so that we have time for as many questions as possible. For our broadcast audience, I’d like to explain that if you hear applause, it may be from the guests and members of the general public who attend our luncheons, not necessarily from the working press. (Scattered laughter.)

The video archive of today’s luncheon is provided by ConnectLive and is available to members only through the National Press Club website at www.press.org. For more information about joining the Press Club, contact us at 202-662-7511. Press Club members also can access transcripts of our luncheons at our website. Nonmembers may purchase transcripts, audio and video tapes by calling 1-888-343-1940.

Before introducing our head table, I’d like to remind our members of future speakers. On Monday, January 10th, Bradley Belt, executive director, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, will be with us. On Wednesday, January 12th, Senator Ted Kennedy, Democrat, Massachusetts. Tuesday, January 25th, Robert Bonner, commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

If you have any questions for our speaker, please write them on the cards provided at your table and pass them up to me. I will ask as many as time permits.

I’d like now to introduce our head table guests and ask them to stand briefly when their names are called. Please hold your applause until all head-table guests are introduced.

From your right: Seth Stern, CQ Congress reporter; Marguerite Sallee, America’s Promise; Bob Madigan, WTOP Radio and a National Press Club member; Maureen Groppe, Gannet News Service and Indianapolis Star Tribune; the Reverend Dr. W. Wilson Goode Sr., founder and national director of the Amachi Initiative, based in Philadelphia, and a guest of the speaker; Barbara McLeod (sp), president, International Network and National Press Club member; Diana Aviv, president and CEO of the Independent Sector and a guest of the speaker; Bill McCarren, president, U.S. News and chair of the National Press Club’s Speakers Committee.

Skipping over the speaker for a moment: John Fales, “Sergeant Shaft,” of the Washington Times and the National Press Club Speakers Committee member who arranged today’s luncheon; Desiree Sayle, deputy assistant to the president and director of USA Freedom Corps — guest of the speaker; Jerry Bastarache, freelance journalist and a member of the National Press Club Board of Governors; Alan Bjerga, Knight Ridder and chair of the National Press Club’s Young Members Committee; Doris Margolis, editorial associate and National Press Club member; David Broder of The Washington Post and former recipient of the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award.

(Applause.)

David Eisner is chief executive officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which administers the Senior Corps, AmeriCorps and Learn & Serve America programs. He was appointed by President Bush and began serving in December 2003. A nationally recognized leader on nonprofit capacity-building, infrastructure and organizational effectiveness, Eisner has focused his time at the corporation on strengthening the organization’s accountability and on improving its customer service and increasing public trust in the organization.

One of his major challenges is guiding the AmeriCorps rulemaking process, through which he intends to resolve some longstanding issues regarding the regulations that govern AmeriCorps grants. The goals of the rulemaking process, as well as of Eisner’s management efforts, are to make the corporation’s programs more efficient, effective and accountable, to ensure that National and Community Service programs add value to traditional volunteering and the non-profit world, and to bring a far greater degree of consistency, predictability, and value to the corporation’s programs.

From 1997 until 2003, he was vice president at AOL Time Warner, where he directed the company’s charitable foundation. Before that, he was a senior vice president of Fleishman-Hilliard International Communications. And prior to that, he managed public relations at the Legal Services Corp. Eisner started his career on Capitol Hill serving as press secretary for three members of Congress.

In addition to his professional activities, he has served on the boards of several national nonprofit organizations, including Independent Sector, the National 4-H Council, and Network for Good. A graduate of Stanford University, he received his law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. He and his wife, Lori, live in Bethesda with their four young children.

Please welcome David Eisner, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. (Applause.)

MR. EISNER: Thank you, Alison. I appreciate the kind introduction.

Thank you to members of the Press Club and to my distinguished colleagues at the head table.

I also want to thank the National Service members who are with us today, the leaders of National Service, and give a special thank-you to the VA volunteers who are joining us today.

Tonight is the eighth and final night of Hanukkah. Each year my family, along with millions of other Americans, focus inevitably on presents, food and other forms of fun and self-indulgence. Lori and her folks and our family are here, so I’m not going to go deeply into that. (Laughter.) But it’s important to remember that what Hanukkah truly stands for is the power of personal sacrifice, of civic engagement against any odds of making a real difference.

The real miracle of Hanukkah is that a small band of idealists, greatly out-numbered and out-gunned, and hiding out in the hills of Judea, recaptured Jerusalem from the Greek army. Even the more often told miracle of the oil, which should have lasted for only one day and instead lasted for eight, has served as a poignant icon through two millennia of the power of starting something positive, even when you have no earthly understanding of how your action can sustain a lasting and meaningful difference.

Now just in case any appropriators are listening to this, I want to point out that making one day’s worth of oil last for eight days is a bad precedent — (laughter) — and no way to base budget.

Today I’m here to speak about service and volunteering, that uniquely American action where one person kindles a candle to give a neighbor light, warmth and comfort. And although people often think of the corporation only as home to our main programs — AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, VISTA, NCCC and Learn and Serve America — I’d like to speak today about volunteering a little more broadly.

Let me begin by telling you about a relatively new program we support in Imperial County, California, the state’s poorest county, in which eight foster grandparents serve as mentors to more than 90 young people who have ended up in juvenile hall. The program was established by a woman who was inspired by President Bush’s 2002 call to action asking all Americans to serve 4,000 hours. That was the same State of the Union speech in which the president announced the creation of USA Freedom Corps to connect ever-increasing numbers of Americans to that call.

For the past three years, Foster Grandparent Virginia Finney has served with the program. Grandma Virginia, as she’s called, builds one-on-one relationships with youth, many of whom have been in trouble with the law and many of whom have parents who are in prison, and the results thus far have been promising. One of the young people Grandma Virginia mentors is Eugene Corrado, a 17-year-old former gang member. Without foster grandparents, Eugene says, I would never have “realized that I was a good person and that I could live a productive life.” Eugene is working to get his GED and plans to attend Imperial Valley College. The creation of this program and the transformative power of caring people like Grandma Virginia and others tells so much about what we’ve learned about national service and also about what makes America strong.

When President Bush issued his call for service in early 2002, the echoes of the explosions of September 11th were still ringing loudly in our ears. That year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 60 million Americans served their communities through volunteer activities with a nonprofit organization. The next year, in 2003, the number of Americans volunteering increased to nearly 64 million Americans, an increase of 7 percent. This coming Thursday the bureau will release the figures of Americans volunteering in 2004. Although we don’t yet know the results, we believe that they will show that this phenomenon of Americans reengaging with their communities continues.

This post-September 11th multi-year climb in civic engagement is extremely unusual. All other spikes of this kind have faded after a number of months. So an opportunity like this to sustain the long-term growth of our civic engagement comes along only once or twice in an entire century. We need to support it and nurture it. If we get this right, we can open the door to a kind of connectedness and responsible citizenship that America hasn’t experienced since 1941 and the 25 years after Pearl Harbor. And I believe that pushing that door open and getting as many Americans through it as possible so that it becomes a long-lasting phenomenon is the job of all of us who care about engaging our citizens and strengthening our democracy and our communities. It is certainly the essence of what we’re all about at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Let me share a little more about where I believe the corporation is right now. In the 1990s we were on the receiving end of some of the most partisan attention experienced by any agency in Washington. Today we enjoy strong bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, and virtually every governor in the country strongly supports our program. For fiscal year 2004, we received a record increase in funding, a 20 percent increase in overall corporation funding and a 40 percent increase in AmeriCorps funding. And that funding in turn has enabled us to support a record 75,000 AmeriCorps members across the country.

Our Learn and Serve program last year put more than a million students on the on-ramp to a lifetime of civic engagement by linking academic achievement with service in their community. And well over half a million older Americans used their skills and experience to support their communities through our Senior Corps programs this year.

Now it’s no secret that we’ve gone through a bruising couple of years at the corporation. Problems with financial integrity and operational accountability eroded our credibility with Congress, with our grantees and even with employees. Today I won’t say that those problems are a distant memory, but it is safe to say that they are receding in the rear-view mirror. Under the leadership of Steve Goldsmith, our board of directors engaged the corporation in enacting change, and I’m pleased that Juanita Doty and Bill Schambra and one of our newest members, Mimi Mager, are here with us today representing the board. We’ve created new standards of fiscal integrity. We’ve restructured and reformed many operations within the agency, from how we review grants to how we evaluate our supervisors. And we’re placing an overall emphasis on strengthening relationships with our core constituents — the grantees that receive our funds and the participants who serve in those programs.

The world of service and volunteering owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the professionals at the corporation, who have rallied through difficult times to serve our valuable mission. Certainly I owe them a lot.

And it’s interesting to note that for an agency that’s only 10 years old, approximately 20 percent of our employees have been with national service programs for more than 20 years. That’s because most of our programs are also more than 10 years old. Learn and Serve America is approaching its 15th birthday. Our three Senior Corps programs — RSVP, Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions — were founded between 30 and 40 years ago. VISTA is 40 years old this year. And although our NCCC program just celebrated its 10th graduation ceremony, they’re based on a program that was started by President Roosevelt more than 70 years ago during the Great Depression.

So we didn’t invent national service 10 years ago, but we sure have come a long way in the last decade. Five years ago, halfway through our decade of service, then-CEO Harris Wofford spoke with pride of the 100,000 AmeriCorps members who found an opportunity to transform their lives in taking the AmeriCorps service pledge.

Harris, as a role model for all of us who care about public service, I’m excited you could join us today. And I know that you’re as thrilled as I am that at the end of our first decade, approximately 380,000 Americans have taken that pledge and joined the AmeriCorps family.

Also today, we’re releasing the first scientifically rigorous study of AmeriCorps. It tells us that people who take the AmeriCorps pledge and fulfill their year of service end up as more engaged citizens than they would have been had they not been in AmeriCorps. Early findings of what will ultimately be a decade-long study — or many decade-long study — show us that there is a direct link between AmeriCorps membership and civic engagement later in life. In other words, service programs are important contributors to the long-term health of our nation.

Participation in AmeriCorps had a particularly significant effect on members who had not volunteered in the years prior to enrolling in the program, which reflects the capacity of AmeriCorps to awaken and strengthen new beliefs in civic engagement and service.

And I’m pleased to report that three years after the baseline survey, AmeriCorps members were significantly more likely than the comparison group to be employed in the public sector. As I know Diana Aviv and Independent Sector will attest, that’s good news for the one million-plus nonprofits, faith-based and community-based in America, and it’s also good news for those of us who are concerned with the future of the government workforce.

We also believe that these results should change the terms of the debate that’s currently raging about whether there’s a connection between volunteering and civic engagement. We know now that there is a connection: service and civic engagement are connected. What we need to do is spend time figuring out how to deepen that connection within the volunteering community.

Copies of the report are available on the tables outside as you leave, and anyone interested can find the complete study on our website at nationalservice.org.

Let me turn now to a different lesson. We’ve learned that devolution and decentralization make national service work better. A decade ago, Congress very wisely chose to push funding and decision- making down to the local level, and governors make the decisions about how they use national service resources in their states. Today we have a network of 53 state commissions who are appointed by governors in all states and territories, who are mobilizing volunteers and coordinating citizen efforts, along with the power of faith-based and community-based initiatives at the grassroots level, to meet social needs.

I’ve now personally visited with leaders of most of those commissions and seen their work in more than 20 states. A high point for me was in September, when I spent the day in Florida with Governor Bush, visiting volunteers responding to the devastating summer hurricane. Governor Bush had asked his state commission, Volunteer Florida, to coordinate all volunteers and donations for the hurricane, and the Florida volunteer response was absolutely incredible. A hundred and forty thousand volunteers contributed a total of 6 million hours of service. According to FEMA, that’s the largest volunteer disaster recovery effort in history.

And national service played a key role. The NCCC, AmeriCorps, VISTA, Senior Corps participants, as well as student volunteers, distributed food, set up shelters, put tarps on buildings and supplied the infrastructure and expertise to manage the historic number of volunteers that they had in Florida.

Wendy Spencer, the executive director of Volunteer Florida, is here with us today. And Wendy, you did an absolutely outstanding job in demonstrating how national service and volunteering is a central and critical resource to meet urgent state needs.

There’s another lesson I’d like to talk about that’s related. National service strengthens community volunteering, and here’s my favorite example. Last year Habitat for Humanity had 450 AmeriCorps members. Those 450 AmeriCorps members trained, supervised and recruited more than 150,000 community volunteers. Those 150,000 community volunteers then helped build Habitat for Humanity homes. Think of the power there — 450 AmeriCorps members, 150,000 community volunteers.

And since 2000, the corporation has invested well over $20 million of national service resources toward making our nation’s volunteer centers stronger and more effective. With the strong partnership of my friend and leader of the Points of Light Foundation, Bob Goodwin, and with partners like the Volunteer Center Network, the Hands On Network, United Way and others, the corporation has only begun to fully leverage this connection.

Let me share more one lesson that I hear all the time from corporation grantees. As a corporation, we focus a lot on leveraging federal dollars, and we don’t focus enough on how good we already are at it and how good our grantees already are at it.

Over the past four years, the corporation’s grantees have collectively raised nearly $1.5 billion in non-corporation funds to support national service programs — $360 million a year, on average, and that number appears to be going up. That $360 million a year is an extraordinary testament to the value that our programs and grantees are providing to their community.

We want to continue adding to that value, and so here are a couple of challenges we’d like to work on together to enable us to fully capture the opportunity to sustain the momentum that service and volunteering has today.

As most people are aware, in the next couple of decades some 77 million baby boomers will reach retirement age. There’s a tendency to regard this coming wave as a huge drain on federal and state budgets and, hence, a diversion of resources from other critical needs. At the corporation we see it a little differently. This is a highly educated, highly motivated group that could be driving solutions toward many of those needs.

Think, for example, about Harry Siebert. He’s a retired civil engineer in Missoula, Montana. As an RSVP volunteer, Harry developed a database-driven volunteer program that tracks the location of at- risk seniors over the age of 85, educates them and prepares to care for them in case of a disaster.

Capturing the talents and experience of baby boomers and engaging them to help solve critical social issues will be a vital goal for the nation in the coming years, and so it will be an essential goal for the corporation.

On the other end of the age spectrum, we come to the needs of at- risk youth. An alarmingly large population of America’s children face near insurmountable obstacles to becoming productive adults who are capable of holding down jobs, earning enough to support their family and positively contributing to their communities. Traditionally, the corporation has given the highest priority to assisting this population, and looking forward, we have to do even more.

We’re very strong fans of the five promises that America’s Promise has been promoting for several years. We think that they are a coherent and comprehensive approach to supporting our youth — a caring adult, a safe place, a healthy start, the opportunity to give back, and marketable skills. Who could debate that these aren’t the fundamentals?

Marguerite Sallee is the dynamic new CEO of America’s Promise. Marguerite, thank you for coming today.

At the corporation, those promises are critical drivers for all of our programs. However, we have so much more to do. In the coming year you’ll see the corporation focus more on mentoring, which reflects the promise of a caring adult and serves as the starting point to get to all four other promises.

And we’re particularly concerned about the 1.5 million children who are today children of incarcerated parents. Seven out of 10 of these children are likely to become incarcerated themselves unless caring adults intervene in their lives.

In response to the president’s call to increase mentoring, the corporation has supported 270 programs that serve over 12,000 children of prisoners a year across the country. And we found that national service programs can help bring these — can help bring these organizations to scale.

A terrific example is the Amachi Initiative, which is led by former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode. Amachi recruits people from congregations to mentor children of prisoners. And in just a few years, with support from AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and VISTA, Amachi has gone from serving 300 children in Philadelphia to serving 2,300 children in 85 locations. The corporation can build exponentially on those impacts, and it’s also worth noting that as we removed barriers to participation by faith-based and small community-based organizations, we’re continuing to see that focus on children with incarcerated parents climb dramatically.

You’re also going to see the corporation intensify our efforts to promote service learning. Our Learn and Serve America programs have already helped stimulate about one-third of American schools to embrace service learning in their classrooms. We’d like to see that figure double in the next decade. It is as important to become a good citizen as it is to learn a skill or to build one’s intellect.

Just last week, Desiree Sayle and I joined Secretary Paige at the Department of Education to launch USAFreedomCorpsKids.gov, a new way to engage kids and teachers in thinking about service. Among many other terrific examples on the site, there’s a discussion about a group of eighth graders in San Antonio, Texas. They served as tutors to elementary school students, and they saw their own reading scores increase and their dropout rate came down dramatically. Studies confirm this. Using service learning as a classroom tool actually enhances academic achievement as it helps children understand their responsibilities as caring citizens. In particular, children who have difficulty learning and focusing in classrooms are more likely to graduate, more likely to achieve at or able grade level, and less likely to miss school, all as a result of participating in service learning activities.

Now to help us meet some of the challenges I just outlined, we’re going to need some partners to step up to the plate. And I want to conclude by urging support from three institutions: higher education, the business community and Congress.

Virtually every college and university commits to building engaged and informed citizens as an integral element of its mission statement. It’s time America challenged them to live fully up to the pledge. Why aren’t more universities matching the education award that our AmeriCorps members receive for service or awarding credit hours or providing scholarships? Why do most universities offer the bare minimum, if that, of federal work-study opportunities for community service? And how are we training our next generation of teachers to use service learning as a classroom tool?

Well, there are a lot of questions here without answers. Part of the reason for that is we haven’t asked the questions strongly enough. Over the next few years, with strong partners like Campus Compact, you can expect us to be asking a lot.

We’re also going to be asking American businesses to better recognize and reward the skills, attitude and work ethic of AmeriCorps members when they’re hiring, and to allow workers to take time to serve in communities. We know for a fact that companies that have volunteer time policies experience increases in productivity, increases in employee morale, stronger employee retention and stronger community relations. We need businesses to offer some measure of the same appreciation and support to the men and women who dedicate a year of their life to national service as they offer to those who serve in our military.

I’m particularly pleased that with us today are Steve and Jean Case, who have done so much to engage America’s business community in supporting volunteering and who continue, through the Case Foundation, to lead in building civic engagement in America. On a personal note, both Steve and Jean have been generous mentors to me and are my heroes.

Finally, we need Congress to address authorizing legislation for the corporation. It’s time to seize the momentum of bipartisan support to strengthen national service for the future. We’ve learned a great deal over the last decade about how national service works. We’ve listened to our grantees and made countless changes to better support their effort. But certain changes can only be made by amending our authorizing law. Over the next several months, our board of directors will develop a five-year strategic plan that will set significant goals for our programs in moving national and community service forward. Achieving those goals will require some legislative changes, and we look forward to working with the 109th Congress to make national service as effective as it possibly can be for our communities and nation.

Imagine if we succeed, and for the next 25 years our citizens become increasingly engaged in our communities and in our civic discourse. Imagine if every high school graduate has been exposed, through service learning and volunteering, to the responsibilities of civic participation and feels compelled to go to his or her local volunteer center and register to become involved in some aspect of improving their community. Imagine if meaningful, intense and year- long national service were broadly regarded as one of the best opportunities for anyone of any age, race, economic status or culture.

If that feels like a stretch from where we are today, remember that small band of idealists in the hills of Judea who overcame the Greek army against all odds, and take heart from what has rightly become the creed of volunteers everywhere, it is the quote from Margaret Mead: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Thank you for your attention, and I look forward to your questions. (Applause.)

MS. BETHEL: The first question: Should college students who get work-study be required to do service work like tutoring, rather than jobs like working in the college cafeteria or admissions office?

MR. EISNER: Well, I don’t think it should be a requirement, but I think we should see a lot more federal work-study going to community service. We’re seeing it happen now in the 6, 7 percent range. We think it should be happening at about 50 percent of federal work-study could be going to community service. That’s extremely difficult because a lot of universities actually are getting the benefit of those federal work-study dollars and having the students perform work that they need done. But we need to make that happen.

MS. BETHEL: What happened to the surge in interest in volunteering after September 11th? Did the president miss an opportunity to tap into that surge?

MR. EISNER: No. As I think I said in my prepared remarks, the president actually hit it right down the center line. With his call to service in 2002, and then repeating it in ’03 and in ’04, we’re now seeing, as I mentioned, the first long-term surge in civic engagement and volunteering that this country has experienced since Pearl Harbor. So I think it’s our job now to keep it going. I know that the president is very, very focused on continuing to enlist more Americans in service and to make our programs as strong as they could be so that we can make that 25-year focus on volunteering and civic engagement really happen for the country.

MS. BETHEL: A number of questions about high school and middle school students. Is it a good idea to give school children credit or grades for volunteerism? And how important has it been to have many high schools encourage kids to volunteer as a graduation requirement? And can you encourage more of this through your organization?

MR. EISNER: Our Learn and Serve America programs are doing this every day. The trick is to link academic achievement to service. You don’t want to give students a grade on how well they provide service, but you can give students a grade on how they reflect on that service, on what kinds of essays they write.

My own children who do some service actually — one’s in second grade, one’s in kindergarten, and they make soup for a homeless shelter by bringing vegetables in. And they are counting how many pieces they cut carrots in and going to figure out, if we have six carrots that we cut into eight pieces, how many pieces do we have. So you can combine the service and the academics, and you grade the kids on the academics.

MS. BETHEL: With the increasing budget shortfalls, do you see institutions of higher education, businesses and other nonprofits investing in professional volunteer managers to enhance civic engagement?

MR. EISNER: We know from a few surveys that have been done over the last two years, first of all, that more nonprofits are investing in professional volunteer managers, and second of all, that they are seeing a much higher benefit than the folks that don’t make that investment. We found that nonprofits that actually invest in stronger management capacity of their volunteers report that they get higher value from the volunteers, that the volunteers lower their costs more and that they have better relationships with the community. So we know for a fact that that investment in professional volunteer management comes back very strongly to the nonprofit that makes the investment.

MS. BETHEL: Have you considered allowing students to work off debt through voluntary community service, a debt-for-development type program?

MR. EISNER: That’s a really interesting question. In some ways, the AmeriCorps program is already operating that way. An AmeriCorps member can take their $4,725 that they earn for a year of service and apply it against their student debt.

If the questioner is asking about whether we’ve done that with other forms of debt, we haven’t yet. And in fact the Congress right now is pretty focused on making sure that that education award can’t be used for any other kind of support, only for education.

MS. BETHEL: What is CNCS doing to promote service learning in K- through-12 schools, given the emphasis on reading and math standards and reform on reading and math being the priority?

MR. EISNER: Again, you know, Desiree and I had this meeting that I discussed with Secretary Page where we launched the usafreedomcorpskids.gov website. And it was so clear from that meeting that service learning really plays into the No Child Left Behind objectives and that service learning improves academic achievement, and particularly improves academic achievement for those kids that have a hard time focusing and a hard time staying in school.

So we know that we are — there is no trade-off. Sometimes we hear, like in a question like this, how do we deal with the trade-off between, on the one hand, civic engagement; on the other hand, academic achievement. We don’t think there is a trade-off. We think that you can get one through the other.

MS. BETHEL: The idea of boomers becoming the next wave of volunteers is attractive. How will it work, and what kind of funding will it require?

MR. EISNER: Well, first of all, we have some programs in place that can start attracting the boomers. If you look at the brilliance of Senior Companions, the idea that we have a program where tens of thousands of seniors spend 20 hours a week helping other frail seniors and people that have to stay at home stay independent, so that no one has to bear the cost of them going into a nursing home, is just a brilliant model.

We do have to fix some things. Right now there’s an age requirement that’s a little too high, and we have an income eligibility requirement, which basically means that you have to be poor in order to provide that service. So we need to change the income eligibility requirements, we need to raise the age, and we need to expand it.

But I think that we actually have some programs currently in place. In the future, I believe that this is an area that as we prove the case that seniors are an asset and that the more we invest in seniors providing service, the more solutions we get to key social issues, we’re going to start seeing Congress and everyone really focus on what we can do to increase that investment as a way of decreasing our social costs.

MS. BETHEL: As a follow-up to that, one audience member asks, “Do your programs do anything to help meet the growing need for independent living seniors, services for the frail and elderly?” Can you maybe speak a little bit about some programs that you have?

MR. EISNER: Well, as I just mentioned, our Senior Companions is such a powerful program that our board is actually considering that one of our priorities in the upcoming strategic plan will be independent living, so that — you know, the amount of costs that we save when we’re able to keep a senior citizen — or anybody else that would otherwise go into a nursing home — instead living independent, even if we can do it for six months, that’s an extraordinary cost that we’re saving for the country.

So we’re looking forward to making Senior Companions stronger and to expanding that priority of independent living across all of our programs.

MS. BETHEL: Two-part question. Were you surprised by the outcry about the AmeriCorps cuts in 2003? And are you satisfied with the level of support that you get from the president?

MR. EISNER: We’re delighted — (laughter) — with the level of support that we get from the president. I mean, the president, first of all, has absolutely, categorically refused to let the corporation or AmeriCorps become a partisan issue. This was a program that, as I said in my prepared remarks, in — you know, some people said that it was — AmeriCorps and health care were the two most partisan issues in the 1990s. And this president has said — he’s given the Democrats credit for starting it. He said we’re going to strengthen it, and he has. Last year, as I mentioned, AmeriCorps got a 40 percent increase. That was a 20 percent increase for the whole corporation. And this year, even as across the government we’re seeing greater austerity, we are — the corporation is at 99 percent of our high-water mark. So we are thrilled.

Now was I surprised by the outcry? I was delighted. I think that our grantees, the corporation’s grantees, did something that was extraordinary. The corporation didn’t save itself. The program didn’t save itself. Our grantees went out — our grantees shone a spotlight on the incredible power — incredibly powerful work that our — that the programs have gotten done over the past 10 years. And across the country newspapers and governors and mayors and in Congress both sides of the aisle said that’s a program that we can’t afford to lose. And we are still enjoying the momentum that our grantees created for us in that very threatening cycle.

MS. BETHEL: Homelessness in the United States has increased. Today there are 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness, 1.3 million children. Do you see more AmeriCorps positions available to help service and combine with homeless organizations, shelters, soup kitchens?

MR. EISNER: Homelessness is a — is an issue that all of our programs wrestle with in one way or another. What we again find is that the best way to decide which issues to put our resources against is to let those decisions be made at the local level. Some states have identified homelessness as the most important use of volunteer resources. Other states focus on children, and some focus on environment. We think that we need more AmeriCorps members, more Senior Corps members to do all of this work, but I’m not going to stand here nationally and say that we’re going to make our states focus on one issue or another.

MS. BETHEL: Isn’t much civic engagement largely composed of mass movements protesting against government policies, like the civil rights movement or the peace movement?

MR. EISNER: Yes. (Laughter.) I think — you know, one of the — volunteering and service is not the sum total of civic engagement. We don’t — we don’t — our members aren’t out there trying to make people vote. We’re not out there trying to get folks to focus on civil rights or to take on the government in class action.

The most important point is to understand that when people volunteer, when people serve, they’re more likely to understand the deeper issues in society. Those are the people that are more likely to stand up for what’s right in city hall and in their statehouse and in Congress. One of the most important things that we learned from the longitudinal study is that when we get people to invest an intense year of service, on the other side after the service they’re more engaged citizens across the board.

So in answer to the question, no, our programs are not about taking on the government and trying to enact reform, but we believe that people that are willing to invest and that go through the experience of that kind of committed service are the people that become the civic leaders of the future.

MS. BETHEL: Who are your volunteers? Are they male? Are they female? What states and regions are they located? Do any states have more volunteers than others? Which are the stronger, the weaker, and why? (Laughter.)

MR. EISNER: We treat all of our states well. (Laughter.) And we do, in fact, have AmeriCorps members, Senior Corps members, Learn and Serve participants, VISTA members, NCCC members operating in all 50 states. There is a cluster of funding, particularly within Learn and Serve America and within AmeriCorps, that is actually formula- driven based on population that goes down into the states. And then there’s another level of funding that is competitive, where the states compete for the funding in those programs.

Demographically, we’re currently — we have a lot of females. I think it’s just over 60 percent is female. Across racial lines we find that across AmeriCorps we’re extremely diverse and very pleased about that. Although we still have some work to do to be diverse within our AmeriCorps programs. So that while we’ll see I think it’s 30 percent African-Americans, when you look at an individual program, we’re likely to see it either being predominantly African-American or predominantly white, and so we have still have some work to do to make sure that diversity is not just something that at the top level we’re looking at but that within programs we’re trying to support as well.

MS. BETHEL: What is rule-making, and when will it be done? (Laughter.)

MR. EISNER: Let’s see. Okay. The corporation for the past 10 years has managed its policy relationship with its grantees primarily through things we call guidelines, which we change every year based on what Congress tells us to do, send it out to our grantees and generally hear a huge cry of outrage and disbelief that we’ve managed once again to change things in a way that confounds them and confuses them and makes the program less predictable for them.

What we’re trying to do through rule-making is bring consistency and reliability and predictability to the program by taking those guidelines and putting them into federal regulation. At the same time, we’re trying to do that in a way that expands the leverage of federal dollars and holds ourselves and the grantees more accountable for both how they spend the money and what outcomes they’re getting for it.

For AmeriCorps, we’ve now gone through almost a year of creating what is a pretty strong package of rules. We heard a lot of input from every state and most of our grantees about what the rules should be. We worked with our board of directors and with OMB and issued a draft set of rules a few months ago. And then over the last few months we’ve heard a lot of input that’s going to make the rules better. We’re currently drafting them. We’ll get them to OMB sometime soon, and we expect that set of rules to come out in around — during the springtime.

We’re also doing — working with Learn & Serve and some other programs on a less contentious and somewhat less issue-oriented rule- making where we’re trying to take the application process and put it into regulations. We expect we’re going to go through that this year and probably come up with rules by next year.

MS. BETHEL: What is the corporation doing or what can the corporation do to increase awareness among college loan lenders as to what AmeriCorps service entails when it comes to the financial situation of corps members. Peace Corps members are offered loans deferments across the board; AmeriCorps members are not. Does the corporation have a plan to address this issue?

MR. EISNER: As I mentioned in my prepared remarks, we really are going to go out and start talking seriously to the higher education community. We think that they have to start treating AmeriCorps members a little bit differently.

There’s an interesting disconnect, because when I talk to presidents of universities and admissions folks, they really want the AmeriCorps members on campus because the AmeriCorps members have the kind of experience, the kinds of skills, the ability to succeed, the ability to work collaboratively, the ability to overcome obstacles, and the attitude, the service attitude that they want to generate more of on their campus. And yet we haven’t seen them do things like figure out how to defer tuition payments against AmeriCorps service. We haven’t seen much in the way of matching the education award. We haven’t seen much in the way of providing credits or scholarships for service. So we think that there is a tremendous amount of work that we can do and that we’re looking forward to do there.

MS. BETHEL: Do other large industrialized nations have programs like these? And are there models that we can learn from?

MR. EISNER: No one’s totally like this. And actually, there are other countries that are now coming to us to understand how we’re doing Senior Corps, to understand what we’re doing with AmeriCorps. South Africa is working now with City Year, I believe, to figure out an AmeriCorps-like program there. Israel, interestingly, and as well as a couple of European countries, are always coming into the corporation to figure out how can we get this going. There are, though, other countries — as I say, it’s interesting for Israel because Israel has a compulsory draft, and a lot of people in Israel that go into that draft end up doing more service-like activities.

So I think that we’re pretty special in how we have national service, but in many ways that’s because we’re special in how our nonprofit system is structured, and because we’re special in terms of the underlying ethic of volunteering and philanthropy that we have in the United States and that doesn’t really exist outside the United States.

MS. BETHEL: What are some concrete ways in which corporations and employers can get involved with CNCS?

MR. EISNER: Well, there’s always check writing! (Laughter.)

I think what we’re really — there’s a lot of different ways. The most important is to look at our grantees and to try to support those grantees who without your support might not be able to meet their obligations.

We’re tough on grantees. Right now grantees are meeting around — between 25 and 30 percent. When they receive AmeriCorps members from us, they have to cover 25 to 30 percent of the cost. And after this rulemaking, we’re potentially looking at moving that, over a period of 10 years, to where they have to cover 50 percent of the cost. It’s not easy. And we sure hope that a lot more businesses and foundations are going to understand how important national service is in their communities that they’re going to support the grantees that are providing national service programs.

We also hope that more businesses will get engaged in their states with their local — or with their state service commission. Those state service commissions have to meet their own matching requirements. But more importantly, they’re helping to set across their state the agenda for national service in that state — the issues they’re going to work with, the partnerships that they’re going to drive. And with any state it’s really important for businesses to pick up the load.

I look at Wendy — Florida did such a terrific job of getting its local businesses to help pick up the burden with national service and with the local volunteers in response to the urgency of the hurricanes. I know that that kind of urgency doesn’t happen to most states, or very often, but getting those connections with businesses within the states with the commissions is very important.

MS. BETHEL: Before I ask you the final question, I’d like to present you with a plaque from the National Press Club and say thank you for joining us today. And also with the coveted National Press Club mug. (Laughter.)

MR. EISNER: Thank you! (Applause.)

MS. BETHEL: The final questions — two. Do you volunteer? And can you get us free tickets to Disney World? (Laughter.)

MR. EISNER: No; I’m not related. (Laughter.) If I was, I probably wouldn’t have worked at AOL.

Let’s see, as far as whether I volunteer. I used to, when I first came to D.C. in the mid-’80s, I worked for a place called FACT Hotline, Families and Children in Trouble, and was a phone operator mostly listening to women who had very significant problems, from domestic abuse, to a sense of feeling overwhelmed, to problems with potential suicide.

And that got me actually very interested in a lot of the work that I did later at AOL, because at FACT there was a phone, and then all around you was the file cabinets and cards. And the role of the phone counselor was to figure out which cards and files to pull down to provide a reference to the woman.

More recently most of my volunteering has been with our grantees. I’ve really enjoyed working with Senior Corps and NCCC and AmeriCorps members and volunteering on their sites. But I do say that once or twice a month I take my kids, with the service learning program they have in their school, and go to Martha’s Table and help make sandwiches for the homeless — I’m sorry, for the hungry.

And the first time we did it was incredibly frustrating, for them and for me, because they immediately got hungry making the sandwiches. And I thought that there was something really wrong with, you know, taking food from hungry people and feeding our kids, until the director of the program rightly made it very clear that food is for anybody that’s hungry. And so now when we go there, we make sandwiches, we eat sandwiches, and have a great time. (Laughter.)

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

MS. BETHEL: Thank you very much.

I’d like to thank you all for coming today.

I’d also like to thank National Press Club staff members Melinda Cooke, Pat Nelson, Jo Anne Booz, Melanie Abdow and Howard Rothman for organizing today’s lunch. Also thanks to the National Press Club Library for their research.

(Sounds gavel.) We are excused.

 

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