Just weeks into the pandemic last spring, multiple crises quickly converged. Business and school closures resulted in widespread joblessness and food insecurity. At the same time, coronavirus concerns made it harder for nonprofits to find volunteers to distribute food in hard-hit communities. Many states even mobilized the National Guard to help as the problem worsened.
In Washington State, where the organization I lead — the Schultz Family Foundation — is headquartered, a staggering 30 percent of households struggled to get enough food as the pandemic took hold, with people of color one and half times more likely than white households to face hunger. The picture was much the same nationally.
As desperate as the situation was, we saw a potential opportunity in another devastating statistic. The pandemic had abruptly interrupted college and job plans for countless young people. The national youth unemployment rate soared to 24.5 percent — approximately twice as high as the previous year. These underutilized young people were just what understaffed and overwhelmed nonprofits needed.
By combining our foundation’s dollars with federal money through the AmeriCorps national service program and state government funding, we realized philanthropy could play a pivotal role in greatly boosting national service to address the crisis. In the fall of 2020, we worked with Serve Washington, a state commission that coordinates service efforts, to start the WA COVID Response Corps. The program was designed to increase the ability of local nonprofits to address the hunger crisis while also opening up AmeriCorps service opportunities for young people.
The model has great potential to be deployed nationally during a period of post-pandemic recovery and beyond — buoyed by an additional $1 billion investment in AmeriCorps as part of the American Rescue Plan.
AmeriCorps is in a special position to respond to a moment of crisis through its vast network of grantee organizations. However, many small nonprofits have trouble navigating its complex requirements and covering the fees AmeriCorps requires organizations hosting its members to pay. Our partnership helped reduce those constraints, resulting in a sharp increase in the number of Washington State food banks hosting AmeriCorps members. In its first five months, the program, which officially kicked off in November, deployed 120 AmeriCorps members to 70 community nonprofits — contributing to the delivery of 6.9 million meals and serving close to 1.4 million people across the state.
We recently published a report sharing the program’s early findings and offering recommendations for launching similar public-philanthropic partnerships in other states. To encourage other foundations to join us in this work, today we are launching the $1 Million National Service Challenge, which will provide matching grants of $100,000 to $250,000 to AmeriCorps state service commissions that are partnering with philanthropy to expand national service.
Here’s what we’ve learned so far about how to develop a successful service partnership:
Navigating the AmeriCorps system requires working with an experienced partner. AmeriCorps is a complicated program, with regulations and paperwork that can limit its ability to reach critical communities. Serve Washington knew how to navigate this complex system. By capitalizing on the AmeriCorps infrastructure and supplementing it with philanthropic dollars, the organization developed a program that was larger and could deploy resources quicker than a standalone service effort. Grant makers throughout the United States can similarly work with state service commissioners to expand AmeriCorps’s reach.
Providing a range of resources will help attract more diverse nonprofits. To address unprecedented levels of hunger, AmeriCorps had to develop relationships with a diverse group of often smaller nonprofits, including many more food banks. We reduced barriers to participation by subsidizing 75 percent of the $6,200 to $10,000 fee nonprofits are required to pay to host AmeriCorps members. As a result, the number of food banks hosting members grew from six in 2019 to more than 70 in late 2020.
But we also quickly realized that not all interested nonprofits had the administrative and human-resources capacity to effectively navigate a somewhat complicated application process and recruit AmeriCorps members in their communities. Offering human-resources assistance can help reduce that learning curve and allow more nonprofits to successfully participate.
Investing in innovative approaches will add new life to the traditional service model. We used our funds to test new ideas that might be harder for risk-averse government institutions to undertake. For instance, we provided funding for a new technical platform (Edquity) to distribute emergency funds quickly and equitably to AmeriCorps members. We also incorporated a data–collaboration tool into the program, which made it easier to track the impact of our efforts. Integrating new approaches into well-established programs such as AmeriCorps can be challenging, but it is often the most important role philanthropy can play.
Committing to equity should be a priority, but it is only the first step. To make AmeriCorps more inclusive and equitable, we set member-recruitment goals to reflect the racial and economic diversity of the communities served. We also funded an increase in the AmeriCorps stipend of as much as 68 percent to make service a viable opportunity for more young people. This allowed participants like Mercedes Anderson, 20, the mother of two, to leave her job at a poultry plant in Longview, Wash., to join the Response Corps. “I was moving three pieces of chicken from one spot to another all day. I just wanted to do something that gave me more purpose in life,” says Anderson, who is expanding her professional network and leadership skills while giving back to the community.
Making equity a priority also produced larger-scale payoffs. For example, United Way of King County was able to mobilize AmeriCorps members to deliver meals to affordable-housing complexes in the greater Seattle area, increasing its reach from three affordable-housing communities to 20, serving more than 2,000 youths a day.
But meaningful change won’t happen overnight. Achieving equity requires time to build new relationships and make changes that expand how and who AmeriCorps programs serve. Giving nonprofits the tools, training, and financial resources to reach those in need is critical to increasing equity across the AmeriCorps network.
Unfortunately, that need won’t go away any time soon as the devastating effects of Covid-19 are likely to persist for years to come. To meet changing demands, in the 2021-22 service year we’re expanding our service effort beyond the focus on hunger to address a range of problems connected to the pandemic, including, but not limited to, losses in learning opportunities, mental and physical health challenges, and gaps in basic needs such as housing and rental assistance.
Service is a meaningful way for people from all backgrounds to give back to their communities, especially during a time of crisis. As Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “Everybody can be great, because anyone can serve.” We hope other foundations join us in this effort to expand national service and bring more Americans together to meet this and future crises.