From military service to traditional volunteers in neighborhoods, from full-time national service in AmeriCorps programs like Habitat for Humanity, City Year and Teach for America to Peace Corps volunteers and Volunteers for Prosperity who tackle HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa, from Citizen Corps emergency responders and medical reserve corps professionals to veterans who return home and continue their service to disadvantaged children, America can empower citizens rather than bureaucracies to address our nation’s toughest problems. Service programs fill the critical gap between government and the individual citizen, performing services big government bureaucracies and the private sector cannot or will not, while also teaching participants about good citizenship. There’s nothing more Republican (or American) than that.
Expanding service opportunities will require more money and more attention from the next President, but it does not need big new bureaucracies, and it should not bust the budget. Studies show that service programs provide a positive return on investment, often 100% or more. Any of us would make that kind of investment in the marketplace, especially if the returns to us also meant a return to the country. Moreover, following the lead of a new generation of social entrepreneurs, service programs can use public-private partnerships to build capacity, and to engage more Americans in service. Alan Khazei, co-founder of CityYear, a successful program that engages young people from diverse backgrounds in service to needy communities, has suggested that a venture capital approach be taken to nonprofit service organizations, investing those which beneficiaries say work. The federal Corporation for National and Community Service already uses similar methodology, which has helped to spur greater accountability across the nonprofit sector. And new measures of civic health, just as the country has measures of economic health, have been put in place by the White House’s Freedom Corps. These efforts provide high returns on investment, help people in need, and promote good citizenship. America is rediscovering itself and finding value in resurrecting old traditions. It is no surprise then that a growing number of Americans are joining the effort to promote service as a way to bring us together as a nation, and to better address the challenges we face together. Through service, Senator McCain has written, Americans “come to know the obligations and rewards of active citizenship.” It is just that kind of active citizenship that will bring Senator McCain to the ServiceNation Summit on September 11, and will, with the next President’s vision, unleash the talents and creativity of millions of additional Americans to serve their nation.