Two years ago, the Clinton administration planned a publicity blow-out for the start of the president's national-service program. AmeriCorps was intended to be something of a Peace Corps for America's needy, except bigger, bolder, and better. Press agents contacted the media, who prepared to roll out the cameras to record the preened, prepped, and smiley-faced youth workers. But on September 12, 1994, in the early morning hours prior to the big AmeriCorps launch, a man from Massachusetts flew his single-engine plane smack into the side of the White House. The crash took away some headlines from AmeriCorps' first public outing, and the organization has been playing catch-up ever since.
"AmeriCorps invaded my private life in a way that my previous service work never did," says Lida Caraway, a Jackson, Miss., resident who has spent many years in community service. Her first job in Jackson was as director for Sims House, a Christian homeless shelter for women and children. She wanted to work for Habitat for Humanity full-time (she was already volunteering part-time), but says Habitat could only offer her a full-time position if she became an AmeriCorps volunteer.
Mrs. Caraway and others welcomed those Americorps funds, but she now contends that if she had known about all of the strings attached, she would never have become an AmeriCorps member. "There were always memos about wearing your AmeriCorps T-shirts and that sort of thing. My work for Habitat involved handling the weekly house payments, which is an important job. In order to receive AmeriCorps dollars, I basically had to work two jobs, because AmeriCorps had all these things they wanted me to do and a lot of their agenda wasn't as important as what I was supposed to be doing for Habitat. It was very visible work, but I wouldn't call it significant work."
AmeriCorps demanded that Mrs. Caraway be involved in community-relations projects-community fairs she contends were poorly organized and poorly attended. She was also required to fill out time sheets indicating that she had spent time building up a neighborhood association that would put on a Neighborhood Day. "It was busy work. It took me away from important work. And there was always pressure to make sure AmeriCorps was getting a good image. I remember the first time a national representative came down. When he found out I was already volunteering for Habitat before I joined with AmeriCorps, he wasn't happy. He never used the words 'You don't need to say that,' but he made it clear. It undercut the purpose of AmeriCorps."
Another perspective comes from Anne Ferris, regional director for Teach For America (TFA)-a nonprofit organization that places college graduates in impoverished public schools to serve as teachers: "AmeriCorps insisted that our teachers receive education awards. Some of us saw that as a problem. We have teachers that come from colleges like Brown and Stanford and we place them in public schools serving poor communities. It is already a challenge to get our corps members to be accepted by public school teachers, but then to have them receive about $4,000 on top of their normal salary-we worried that would lead to problems." Ms. Ferris believes it did lead to problems: "I have to say that some of my teachers became, well, too conscious of the additional money."
The other problem Ms. Ferris experienced with AmeriCorps was its insistence that TFA involve itself with public-relations efforts on behalf of AmeriCorps. "We want our teachers to think of themselves as professionals. When AmeriCorps starts telling us our teachers have to wear AmeriCorps T-shirts and talk about their involvement with AmeriCorps, it doesn't help. Look, I know the money came at a time when we critically needed it, but I frankly feel involvement with AmeriCorps changed the mindset of our teacher corps-it diluted our efforts and it made us less focused. It's totally different than what happens when you take money from a foundation or a corporation. They want recognition, but they don't demand that you become part of a crusade for their survival. And involvement with AmeriCorps means you have to do that."
Confronted with allegations that AmeriCorps saddles nonprofits with onerous public-relations obligations and red tape, Mike Fee, who is currently TFA associate director of development, argues that AmeriCorps has a right to demand that its volunteers engage in publicity work. "I'm proud to be involved in efforts to give AmeriCorps more recognition because AmeriCorps gives a sense of cohesion and pride to the service movement. I think that's really important. People should accept it as a part of their obligation to furthering the national service movement." And Reiko Gomez, TFA's director of regional programs, states that with AmeriCorps "there were problems-contradictory documents, constant bureaucratic frustrations-but what do you expect? They were just getting started. I do think they are going to get better and better."
AmeriCorps was always pushing for good publicity, particularly when faced with a Republican Congress initially resistant to its continued funding. But some AmeriBlunders led to a backlash. Take AmeriCorps' grant to ACORN, a radical, '60s-style organization that works for housing reform. ACORN obtained 44 AmeriCorps volunteers, a handsome gift that set taxpayers back $950,000. Those tax dollars made possible an AmeriMob of protesters who interrupted Newt Gingrich's address to the National Association of Counties. (One Arkansas protester grabbed the microphone and shouted, "Don't take the food out of the children's mouths.")
A $1.2 million AmeriCorps grant to a community association in Denver enabled AmeriCorps members to distribute leaflets attacking a city councilman who was fighting for reelection. "What happened to Cole Coalition-the neighborhood group was staffed by young AmeriCorps workers-could be a case study for a course on government theory," the Rocky Mountain News editorialized. "Massive national service program sends armies of young kids into local communities to do good works; lacking clear objectives, project begins to deteriorate into partisan political activity and diversion of funds."
Charges of financial mismanagement also emerged. Initially, AmeriCorps projected that its per-volunteer expense would be $13,000 to $18,000, but an August 1995 General Accounting Office audit placed the average per-member price at $26,654. AmeriCorps advocates have argued non-federal donations bridge the gap between $18,000 and $26,000; nevertheless, nearly 90 percent of AmeriCorps funding is government funding-in other words, a taxpayer expense.
Whether the funding is provided by state or federal taxes, the numbers remain unimpressive. AmeriCorps' per-member direct-service cost is $19.60 an hour, not including time spent on training and administrative overhead. That figure brings to mind wages bargained for by union bosses, not national-service advocates. No wonder President Clinton is confident there will be plenty of people "volunteering."
Of course, there's something even worse than a bad audit, as AmeriCorps' parent, the Corporation for National Service, now understands. Last March, the CNS inspector general and a major accounting firm concluded that CNS books have been so poorly kept that they are "unauditable." The inspector general did not rule out the possibility of criminal financial mismanagement.
Perhaps in light of such problems, AmeriCorps paid the public-relations firm Ogilvy, Adams, and Rinehart Inc. $1.7 million to promote AmeriCorps. But Ogilvy has not produced miracles; even traditionally liberal-minded newspapers are down on the new crew of paid volunteers. The Los Angeles Times described the Orange County AmeriCorps program as "a bundle of good intentions that never met its mark."
Some reporters have shown that the work AmeriCorps is doing-whether efficiently or otherwise-is too often trivial. On Sept. 22, 1994, Francis Wilkinson reported on some AmeriCorps efforts in Rolling Stone: "In a little more than four hours,10 corps members and a supervisor have measured one window, installed another, and put one lock on a door. After lunch the workload gets lighter." Such news prompted Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to suggest that "when someone asks you how many AmeriCorps volunteers it takes to screw in a lock, the unfortunate answer is ten plus one supervisor."
Is there an alternative? Many Christian organizations have avoided AmeriCorps and other government programs altogether. (AmeriCorps, like other government programs, does not consider evangelism to be community service.) Hope House, in Nampa, Idaho, is a boarding school for abused children. With a volunteer staff of 12, one administrator, one general director, and one assistant administrator, Hope House runs a state-accredited K-12 school and a residential treatment facility. "To me it's a waste of time to have all these assistants," says Donnalee Velvick, Hope House's general director. "We don't even take salaries. When our kids get new clothes, we get new clothes. When they get shoes, we get shoes. Our volunteers are volunteers-we give them a stipend to pay off student loans, but that's it."
The children Hope House accepts are those deemed too difficult to handle by other institutions. On Oct. 27, Hope House will celebrate its 23rd year of service. During that period, Hope House has distinguished itself. The usual drop-out rate for students of the kind Hope House takes on is very high. "Our dropout rate is zero," explains Mrs. Velvick.
Mrs. Velvick believes Hope House has been successful because those who work with Hope House see themselves as servants-servants of God. "Being a servant means doing your best, and that doesn't come with a price tag." The students start their day with prayer. Once a week there is a chapel service. Three-quarters of Hope House's funding comes from foundations, private donors, and businesses. The rest comes from government benefits that are due the orphans and other children who reside there. Hope House's per-child cost each month, including room and board, is $465-about one-fourth the cost of similar government facilities.
Mrs. Velvick isn't sold on the idea of national service. "We have two children here who came to us from Mother Teresa. One was a seven-month-old abortion survivor found in the gutter. The other had seen her father decapitated and her mother's hands cut off because of thievery. If you are going to give care at that level, it has to be directed at the individual. It's not something that results from a movement. It results from seeing your life as a service to God."
Other Christian organizations are run like the Presbyterian Church of America's Reformed University Fellowship programs, an outreach to college students. Marvin Padgett, like Mrs. Velvick, doesn't believe he needs a big staff to get the job done. "In Atlanta headquarters we have the Coordinator for Campus Ministries-that's me-the assistant to the coordinator, a bookkeeper, a donor/donee processor, and a receptionist," Mr. Padgett explains. There are 44 ministers in the field. Eighty percent of their funding comes from PCA churches, but the ministers are themselves involved in visiting churches to explain why these donations are important.
Mr. Padgett's operation also follows Mrs. Velvick's in terms of administrative costs. "We have about a $3.155 million budget, and our administrative overhead is approximately 15 percent."
Campus Crusade for Christ, a $257 million organization, draws 88 percent of its budget from individual contributors. The remainder comes from conference registrations and the sale of literature. Campus Crusade's full-time missionaries are required to raise a team of financial supporters to cover the cost of their salary, training, ministry, fundraising, and administrative costs. It doesn't take a degree in psychology to appreciate the difference in personal responsibility generated from this type of fundraising versus signing up for a program to get $19.50 an hour.
It is possible, theoretically at least, that AmeriCorps will do what U.S. government programs do not do-keep costs down and avoid waste. It is also possible that AmeriCorps staffers will, regardless of which administration they are serving, avoid partisan political activity. But why should Americans hope for the unlikely, especially when it concerns a program that seems beside the point? Organizations like Hope House are emerging across the country. Approximately 80 million Americans participate in volunteer activities each year; the vast majority of these are with organizations that are religious in nature. It is hard to imagine a better role model than Hope House, or a more implausible mentor than the federal government, no matter how well intentioned.
"When I was sitting with President Reagan, he noticed how nervous I was," Mrs. Velvick says. She is telling of the time she was flown to Washington, D.C., to accept a humanitarian award in 1984. "He commented on it and I told him how I could be made to feel less nervous-if I could explain the key to my life's work. He told me to go ahead, and so I did. I told him what a privilege it was serving the Almighty God."