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Fiscally Constrained Cities Protect Public Services with Volunteers

Stephanie Rozsa, Bonnie Mann

Across the country, cities of all sizes are redefining how government works with its citizens. In this difficult financial climate, many cities are facing intractable budgetary issues and limited public support. Recent data from the National League of Cities’ State of America’s Cities survey reports that 75 percent of randomly sampled cities describe worsening fiscal conditions, and 52 percent expect a decrease in services.

In response, many local leaders are not only engaging their residents in dialogue in order to prioritize services amidst shrinking budgets, but they are inviting them into their offices to share the burden. From Phoenix to Biloxi, leaders are recognizing the importance of volunteerism as a strategy to strengthen–or even expandservices while fostering a strong culture of civic engagement.

The Volunteer Profile
Over the past few decades, the volunteer paradigm has shifted from one of weekend hobby or parental duty to one of civic responsibility. Today’s volunteer offers a diverse set of skills and seeks to contribute meaningfully to the operations, safety and sustainability of their communities. Many volunteers use the opportunity to socialize, network and build professional skills. So despite the financial toll wrought by the recession, federal statistics from the Corporation for National and Community Service show that the volunteer rate has been increasing since 2007. Many local governments, regardless of fiscal capacity, are positioning themselves to reap the economic benefits.

The Costs, The Benefits
Despite its connotation, volunteers are not free. Proper recruitment, training, and management of volunteers cost cities staff time and resources. To help cities quantify the benefits they reap from volunteers, the Independent Sector affixes a dollar value of $20.85 to hourly volunteer time. And the Financial Accounting Standards Board authorizes this value to be used on financial statements, which literally adds to the bottom line. In Plano, Texas last year, volunteers worked nearly 96,000 hours at a locally-estimated value of $1.8 million. The city then calculated its return on investment, which was $10.38 for every $1 spent. The International City/County Management Association estimates the national ratio to be 10 to 1 for local governments. At a time when NLC data reveal that 71 percent of local governments are making personnel cuts, these savings are significant.

An Increasing Stature
Plano is one of many cities contributing to the professionalization of volunteer management. The city retains a volunteer coordinator, produces an annual report, and invests in specialized database software to manage volunteers. Using software such as Volunteer2, both the volunteer coordinator and the volunteers can manage schedules and openings.

A few months ago, Plano’s mayor signed on to the national Cities of Service Campaign, a growing bi-partisan coalition of 115 mayors who seek to engage the more than 49 million Americans they represent in addressing their most pressing local needs. Member cities are creating comprehensive service plans and evaluations with clear metrics, and are appointing volunteer coordinators if they do not have them already. Thanks to a $2 million grant, eligible member cities receive financing for two years to hire Chief Service Officers to implement their plans and coordinate volunteers.

Many successful volunteer programs–in cities both inside and outside the Campaign–share common processes and management practices:

  • They strategize according to the city’s needs and create a plan; engage citizens according to their interests, availability, and skill sets;
  • Organize appropriate training and orientation for volunteers and the city employees with whom they work;
  • Provide flexible, ongoing support.

In other words, they treat volunteers like employees. Other cities draw on existing local partnerships, like religious organizations or nonprofits that already have strong volunteer groups. Several cities, like Hampton, Virginia, are also contracting nonprofits to manage volunteers. Significantly, the Corporation for National and Public Service’s recent civic engagement research found a positive correlation between the number of nonprofits in a city and its number of volunteers.

Successful Programs
Volunteers are not just performing clerical duties, they are adding value to potentially sensitive matters. In Westerville, Ohio, volunteers are trained in the Citizen Police Academy (CPA) to serve as part of the police department’s community outreach effort. Many then go on to join the dues-paying CPA Alumni Association to, under department supervision, call on warrants, assist with in-service training, and support the department’s Terrorism Awareness and  Prevention program.

Others programs recruit volunteers with unique skills to target specific needs. In Oxnard, CA, an existing police-clergy partnership that worked exclusively with crime victims evolved its role in the community in response to a spate of shootings. The group now recruits reformed gang members who volunteer to respond to violent incidents within 24-hours in hopes of reducing retaliation rates.

In a unique partnership with an existing federal program, the Mayor’s Office in St. Paul, MN, places and supports 20 AmeriCorps VISTA members at schools, community-based organizations and government agencies to further the city’s education goals.

Some volunteers are playing the policymaker, as in Jacksonville, FL, where more than 150 community leaders, safety experts and citizens were tasked by the mayor to spend four months researching best practices in crime prevention. The group created a comprehensive safety plan called the Jacksonville Journey, which was approved by City Council. The many initiatives required by the plan, including ex-offender reentry programs, after-school recreation leagues, and training centers for suspended students, continue to receive municipal funding.

Increasing Citizen Engagement
Beyond the financial benefits cities receive from volunteers and the personal satisfaction volunteers receive from contributing, whole communities are being strengthened. In the first report from the federal government on Civic Life in America, the Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship recently found that volunteers–both adults and youth–are more likely to become engaged in other formal or informal civic activities that address community issues, such as voting, attending political meetings, or joining social organizations. The act of volunteering begets more civic engagement. As cities welcome their citizens as volunteers, they are reinventing the meaning of playing an active part in the community.

For more examples of cities that have implemented successful volunteer programs, read The National League of Cities’ recent publication, “City Government Promoting Civic Responsibility through Volunteerism,” at www.nlc.org.

Bonnie Mann is project manager for NLC’s Democratic Governance Program. Email: [email protected].

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