A Year of Service: From small screen to big picture

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The Middle is the first-ever network television show to feature a character serving in AmeriCorps (Pic credit: ServiceNation)

As featured in The Guardian’s Pick of the blogs

TV programmes, movies and social media will help attract a younger, digital-savvy generation in the US to take a ‘year of service’, claims a new campaign backed by former president Bill Clinton. But are story lines about community service really enough to inspire a new generation of pre- or post-college gappers?

Chelsea Clinton recently teamed up with US chat show host Jimmy Kimmel to launch Serve A Year – the Clinton Foundation-backed drive by advocacy organisation ServiceNation to get one million young people volunteering in the US by 2023.

The goal: to harness the talents of millennials to tackle a heap of social issues including food poverty and youth unemployment. With a longer lens, the campaign hopes to inspire and nurture the nation’s future leaders and problem solvers. More ambitiously perhaps, Chelsea Clinton’s aspiration is that a service year after high school or college will become “the expectation, not the exception”, part of growing up in America.

Beyond volunteering

Campaign spokesman Tim Smith says a service year “is not a volunteer opportunity, but a year-long service commitment”, through programs like AmeriCorps that come with a paycheck. AmeriCorps members are supported with a living stipend of an average $14,000 a year  (depending on the particular program), plus a $5,500 education award received upon completion of their service year that can be used for educational purposes (tuition, books, student loans etc).

Airbnb will donate accommodation and support for approximately 1,000 AmeriCorps members as they move to new cities for their year of service. There are 80,000 AmeriCorps positions available this year. One goal for Serve A Year is to expand these opportunities, says Smith.

Compelling campaign

Serve A Year is a well-connected campaign that unites non profits like AmeriCorps and Teach for America with some of the biggest US media and entertainment companies such as Comcast and NBCUniversal, Tumblr, YouTube and FunnyOrDie. 

As part of the Serve A Year campaign, ABC’s The Middle recently featured a character (Brad) deferring college to spend a year with AmeriCorps (“It’s kind of like the Peace Corps, but for America!”). When he finishes his service, ‘Brad’ can use his Segal AmeriCorps Education Award to reduce his college costs.

The campaign is based on a similar initiative that helped popularise the concept of the “designated driver”. Harvard School of Public Health worked with Hollywood writers to insert drunk driving prevention messages into popular shows over a four-year period; more than 160 prime-time programs incorporated this concept and the country saw a 30% decline in drunk driving fatalities between 1988 and 1994.

YouTube is among the channels that Serve A Year hopes will attract its target market. Latest research shows that three-quarters of millennials have an account on a social networking site, compared with only half of Generation Xers, and less than a third of the Baby Boomers.

Service nation?

Clinton et al hope that this will be a compelling argument for their new breed of national service, in a country where almost six million 16-24 year olds are not in school or employment. According to government data, millennials now represent the largest generation in the US, comprising around one third of the total population in 2013.

In the UK, organisations such as CSV and Year Here continue to attract UK millennials to community service opportunities. But with total student outstanding loan debt in the US over $1 trillion at the end of the second quarter of 2014 (the second largest category of household debt), is it really feasible to have post-grads doing voluntary service rather than getting a job?

Absolutely, says ServiceNation executive director Zach Maurin: “Today, the expected path is high school, college and then a career.

“We want to redefine growing up to include a service year that will help tackle our nation’s challenges and empower the next generation. We envision a day when you’re as likely to hear young people ask each other, ‘Where will your year of service be?’ as you would, ‘Where are you applying to college?’”

Who are the future philanthropists?

Experts suggest big donors should be moving towards an entrepreneurial approach to giving that ‘disrupts the status quo’. Photograph: Reid Wiseman/Nasa/Handout/EPA

Experts suggest big donors should be moving towards an entrepreneurial approach to giving that ‘disrupts the status quo’. Photograph: Reid Wiseman/Nasa/Handout/EPA

This article originally appeared in The Guardian

Look at the organisations supported by the top 20 UK or US philanthropists and you’ll see a similar picture: research bodies, hospitals, educational institutions and foundations. Perfectly acceptable choices, but hardly risky ones. Yet growing evidence suggests that philanthropists who take more risks could bring about greater innovation and impact in the not-for-profit sector. Think northern California’s project to raise food stamp enrolment rates with the support of technology – an unprecedented approach that aims to improve food poverty for thousands of residents.

A CAF report published earlier this month found that four out of five wealthy donors under 40 hold socially-conscious investments, including some that will not necessarily offer a financial return. The findings in Philanthropy: a gift or investment? mirror the growing trend for big donors to move away from the usual beneficiaries and traditional methods of giving, to identifying and nurturing “disruptive” interventions to complex problems. The Edge Fund’s backing of UK grassroots social justice projects that don’t make it on to the radar of traditional funders exemplifies this.

Plymouth University’s Prof Jen Shang is leading a study involving 22 philanthropists across the world who support international development. The study seeks to identify the thought processes and actions behind donors’ more risky decisions.

Shang, research director at the university’s Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy, says philanthropists who are open to risk-taking have several things in common. For example, they consult widely with a range of stakeholders to get a full picture of what is needed. So for a healthcare project, that could mean engaging children or other user groups as well as medical staff.

Risk-taking philanthropists also have “an empathetic ability to act on what they find”, says Shang. So if a charity’s youth project wants to fund vocational job training rather than further education – because that’s what its beneficiaries want – the donor respects this.

But Shang admits that not all donors may be emotionally ready for this kind of decision: “How many philanthropists are willing to use their hard-earned income to help someone reach their dreams when those dreams aren’t consistent with what the philanthropist believes should be their full potential?”

The Plymouth study, which will release findings next year, has not found donor age to be a factor in risk-taking. However, Shang says a donor’s “appetite for learning” – be that about beneficiaries’ needs or project best practice – seems to make a difference to the way they approach risks in giving.

Helping donors to develop skills for risk taking and other challenges is the aim of the Philanthropy University, an online education resource to be launched later this year. It is an initiative of the UK-based Stars Foundation, whose annual Impact Awards offer unrestricted grants (ie no rules on how money should be spent) to NGOs across the world working with disadvantaged children.

While many donors would prefer to specify what their money is used for, Stars founding chairman Amr al-Dabbagh argues that unrestricted funding is “catalytic” for NGOs: “It unlocks the potential of these organisations to invest in themselves, be responsive, scale up and become resilient sustainable organisations in their communities.”

And al-Dabbagh believes big donors should be moving towards an entrepreneurial approach to giving that “disrupts the status quo”. He cites Bill Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative as an example, bringing together philanthropists, world leaders, business and NGOs to find innovative solutions to global problems such as access to healthcare.

Turning established giving practices on their head is key to the work of California’s Philanthropic Ventures Foundation (PVF). Over the past 23 years, it has distributed more than $98m (£64m) on behalf of more than 2,000 philanthropists to grassroots organisations and community groups in the San Francisco Bay area and worldwide. A flagship programme is teacher resource grants of between $500 and $2,500 for classroom materials, projects and field trips. Teachers fax their one-page requests to PVF and receive a response within 48 hours.

Chief executive Bill Somerville explains PVF’s philosophy: “We exercise a great deal of trust. You might want to use the term ‘venture’, meaning one is willing to try something even though it might not work but in your professional opinion you feel it is worth taking a risk.

“I don’t even know what strategic means and never use the word. Nor do I use the term ‘problem’. My commodity of exchange is ideas – what do you want to see happen and how do you propose to bring it about?”

This process of identifying creative projects and solutions is often seen in giving circles, formed by individual donors with common interests. Members pool monetary contributions and decide as a group how to distribute funds. Usually they have close contact with the charity or organisation and often will find, or back, a project that a traditional funder would not.

Somerville in California says philanthropists should see risk-taking as a learning experience: “Philanthropy does not like a failure and thus most foundations do not take risks. I don’t feel the world will get better unless we are willing to try new things, to take risks, to be willing to accept an occasional failure.”

Giving Tuesday: Lessons to learn

What can the UK learn from   US Giving Tuesday campaigns?

As featured in The Guardian’s Pick of the blogs

As the UK begins to assess the impact of Giving Tuesday 2014 – its first annual nationwide generic charity giving drive – US charities could offer some useful insights into success as they enter year three of the same campaign.

Launched in the US in 2012 by New York’s 92nd Street Y and supported by the UN Foundation, Giving Tuesday has become the US’s fundraising finale to the post-Thanksgiving retail excesses of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Each year, thousands of US charities and NGOs piggyback on the still-fledgling campaign, using it as a focus to get individuals and business to donate their money, time and skills to good causes.

Kathy Calvin, CEO of the UN Foundation, comments: “#GivingTuesday is a counter narrative to Black Friday and Cyber Monday because it reminds us that the spirit of the holiday giving season should be about community and not just consumerism.

“The most meaningful gift we can give our children, loved ones, friends and neighbors is the commitment to work together to help build a better world.”

But how does this “counter narrative” work for a nation that does not have a Thanksgiving tradition and the related history of retail excess? Would a post-Boxing Day sales campaign not have more resonance and result?

Earlier this year, veteran UK fundraiser Stephen Pidgeon told delegates at the International Fundraising Congress that Giving Tuesday was unlikely to gain much traction with UK givers. He argued that contriving a day on which people gave to ignored the logic that the best way to engage donors is to use a cause they feel personally connected to: “You have to move people to do something about that – it’s not a process, it’s a feeling.”

Inevitably, social media has driven Giving Tuesday both in the UK and US. According to tweet analysts Topsy, #givingtuesday has racked up eight times as many mentions in the US this year as it has in the UK.

This year, charities and their supporters have been encouraged to post photos tagged with #UNselfie (think the still life version of the #icebucketchallenge videos). Other tips include promoting funding recipient story sharing, highlighting the experiences of volunteers, and sharing social media best practices on your blog to encourage others to develop a Giving Tuesday strategy.

California immigrant support charity Refugee Transitions is using the #GivingTuesday campaign via Facebook and Twitter to harness support for its education, family engagement and community leadership opportunities. A board member and donor at the NGO says: “When you give to RT, your donations aren’t merely consumed. There is a multiplier effect. Your donations help change lives, families, and communities.”

But, as proponents insist, Giving Tuesday isn’t just about raising money. It’s also about telling people about your mission and raising awareness. Phoenix House, a national organization helping men, women and teens to overcome addiction, asked its networks to write letters of encouragement to the people in its treatment programs. The group had a template letter on its website for people to download, customize and send back to the organization, which then delivered those letters on Giving Tuesday. From its efforts, the group gained a lot of media attention and was included in articles on Mashable and the Huffington Post.

US-based nonprofit innovator Beth Kanter comments: “Giving Tuesday is more than just a kickstarter for nonprofits to launch their annual appeals.

“The day has so much more potential…  to be a day when nonprofits give to each other and create abundance.”