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AmeriCorps the Beautiful

Here's how to reform Clinton's national service program for the Bush era

11:00 PM, Jan 21, 2001 • By LESLIE LENKOWSKY
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AmeriCorps, in other words, reflects the needs of public officials and well-established charities as much as those of would-be volunteers and grass-roots groups. (Some organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and Colin Powell's former home, America's Promise, have even managed to get their grants written into the budget of the program's parent agency, the Corporation on National Service.) That does not make AmeriCorps a bad program; its grantees usually have a good record and can be counted on to handle government money responsibly. But it does make it a limited one.

The new administration should consider broadening the mission of AmeriCorps. This would entail some risks, but would not be difficult. Instead of running a competition for nonprofit organizations, AmeriCorps and its state affiliates could set up a selection process for individuals, possibly something as simple as a lottery. The volunteers chosen could then each receive a voucher and would have a period of time -- three months, perhaps -- to find a charity willing to put them to work. Any organization with meaningful work to be done that meets the standards of a recognized accrediting agency, such as the United Way or the National Association of Evangelicals, would be allowed to redeem the voucher to compensate the AmeriCorps member. Smaller, loosely structured groups could be approved through a vetting process similar to those used for non-traditional applicants in the states with the best provisions for charter schools.

The most immediate result of this new way of operating would be that a much wider group of charities, concerned with a much broader range of problems, would benefit from AmeriCorps. And people interested in serving would find the barriers to doing so reduced. Some might choose to spend their time, say, at the nursing home that had looked after their grandparents or to work full-time for a church group in their home neighborhood. The program's cost per member might go down, too, since the administrative burdens that come with government grants would be reduced. In addition, more members might be able to live at home or with friends and thus participate in AmeriCorps for just an educational award -- as one-third of members already do.

On the other hand, scattering AmeriCorps members far and wide among the nation's charities would make it much harder to confirm impressive-sounding statistics about numbers of children tutored, vacant lots cleaned up, and houses built. Nor would politicians have as many opportunities to be photographed at rallies of young people wearing AmeriCorps sweatshirts. More important, ensuring that the tens of thousands of participants really did perform meaningful work would be harder if they were attached to a wider array of organizations, including many unversed in government accounting.

Yet any program genuinely aimed at unleashing civic energies to solve local problems is bound to confront these difficulties. Most of the nation's charities are small and count their successes in small numbers. The most effective ones are frequently the least visible and least willing to be used as political props. Good management skills are by no means unappreciated or absent. But they may be less important to those in charge than doing what is necessary, even if it might later dismay the auditors. A government program that seriously aimed to assist grass-roots charities simply could not operate with military precision.

This has always been the difficulty with national service. Its advocates envisage a force capable of attacking local problems with all the vigor of a military mobilization. A century ago, William James -- a pacifist looking for a constructive outlet for young men's energies -- embraced national service as the "moral equivalent of war." Though hardly the creation of pacifists, AmeriCorps partakes of the notion that it offers an alternative to military service. It is organized along platoon-like lines and uses oaths, insignia, and uniforms. A small wing of the program even operates out of former or downsized military bases.

Few of the nation's voluntary groups share that character. Instead of disciplined, goal-oriented teams, they rely on loose collections of independent-minded citizens to help with ventures whose outcomes are often uncertain and far in the future. Those community groups that achieve lasting impact usually do so by cultivating numerous, slow-maturing relationships in which personal commitment and persistence count for more than esprit de corps. Making charities really work depends less on martial values than on philanthropic and spiritual ones.