Departing National Service CEO Sees Unprecedented Need
Friday, November 14, 2008
Posted by: Paige Robertson
Departing National Service CEO Sees Unprecedented Need
and Opportunity for Service and Volunteering
Washington DC – After five years leading the Corporation for National and Community Service, David Eisner steps down today, expressing pride in the momentum behind the service and volunteer sector, urgency about the need to harness civic power to tackle tough problems, and optimism over America’s opportunity to engage more Americans in service.
“For five years I have traveled across the country with a mixture of awe and admiration at seeing how your work is saving lives, ensuring futures, defeating despair and restoring hope for Americans who have no other place to turn,” Eisner said in a farewell message to staff and grantees. “As a result of our work together, today national service has improved more lives, grown stronger and more secure, expanded its base of bipartisan support, and built a culture of impact and accountability in a way that offers a solid foundation for continued growth.”
Eisner shared similar thoughts yesterday in a wide-ranging farewell address to hundreds of students and civic leaders at Georgetown University. In the speech, Eisner described an “incredible moment” of need and opportunity stemming from the economic downturn that is putting more Americans at risk and the growing cross-sector momentum for citizen problem-solving. (Speech and video in national service newsroom at www.NationalService.gov)
“America today is facing a set of crises that also represent a true opportunity to innovate in a way that bets on American citizens to be a part of solutions in ways that are both new and that hearken back to our earliest traditions,” said Eisner. “The need is dire, our resources are scarce, our service and volunteering infrastructure is ready our youth are ready, and Americans of all ages are waiting to be asked. This is an incredible moment, and we must seize it.”
Eisner said the economic downturn means more Americans will be struggling to make ends meet at the same time nonprofits could face precipitous drops in giving. He worried the decline could have its hardest impact on America’s youth – with 13 million children already living in poverty, 3 million who go to bed hungry, 15 million who need a mentor, and one-third who drop out of school each year.
A large scale mobilization of volunteers could have an especially profound impact on the high school dropout crisis. Eisner challenged national, state, and city leaders to call on millions of Americans to invest an hour a week for a year to tutor or mentor a child and urged the incoming Administration to make such a call to service to all Americans.
Eisner pointed to research and examples he’s seen first hand of volunteer programs with dramatic impacts that include raising literacy rates, decreasing risky behaviors, and keeping kids in school and on track for success in life. “Getting more people to stand up and say “I care” may offer the single most effective intervention Americans have to tackle some of our toughest challenges, he said.
Corporation Board Chair and former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith said that the momentum behind service is also stronger than ever among elected officials. He cited proposed expansions of national service by both Presidential candidates, President-elect Obama’s comprehensive service agenda, several bipartisan national service bills recently introduced in Congress, and the increased investment by Governors and mayors in volunteering to meet local needs.
Goldsmith called on lawmakers to consider investing in the infrastructure of volunteering and service as part of the upcoming stimulus package in addition to physical infrastructure projects like bridges and highways. He emphasized that service represents a low-cost, high return way to accelerate the entrepreneurialism of the social sector to meet the surge of demand the economic downturn will create.
Both Goldsmith and Eisner said the Corporation is ready to grow and better positioned to take on an expanded role than any time in its history, with well-run programs, a strong network of state service commissions, portfolios of thousands of results-driven grantees that include some of America’s most innovative and entrepreneurial organizations, key partnerships in the nonprofit and corporate sector, a high-performing workforce, and a widespread culture of impact and accountability. “The Corporation for National and Community Service has never been stronger, more efficient, more accountable and better positioned than it is today,” Eisner said. But it wasn’t always this way.
A Look Back
Eisner came to the Corporation in December 2003, at a time of challenge and difficulty for the organization. He immediately put in place a series of reforms to strengthen financial, grants, and program management; listened to the concerns of grantees and staff, improved customer service, and made the agency’s decisions more transparent. In 2005 he managed a watershed rulemaking that made the AmeriCorps program more stable, predictable, and cost-effective.
"David restored credibility and strengthened the programs of the Corporation when we sorely needed it,” said Bill Basl, who directs the Washington service commission and is board chair of America’s Service Commissions. “He also was a strong champion of devolution and truly understood the pivotal role Governors play in utilizing service as a strategy to address critical needs in their communities.”
The focus on performance and accountability has permeated the agency. The Corporation has received nine consecutive clean audits and has reduced operating costs by consolidating field offices and automating business processes. It has improved grantee oversight while simultaneously reducing burdens on grantees. Through rulemaking, increased competition, and creative new models, the cost per AmeriCorps member has been significantly reduced, allowing more Americans to serve. The Corporation’s customer satisfaction scores now exceed the government-wide average, as does employee satisfaction. The results of the last government-wide personnel survey put the Corporation for the first time on the list of “Best Places to Work in Government.”
Nice to Necessary
While the first priority was getting the agency’s house in order, Eisner also began to shape a new vision for the Corporation as not just the administrator of national service programs but as a creative and catalytic force for the larger volunteer sector.
Eisner worked with agency’s bipartisan board to put forth a new five-year strategic plan in 2006 with bold goals for mobilizing more Americans to volunteer, engaging students and Baby Boomers in service, and providing mentors to millions more disadvantaged youth. The strategic plan has helped the Corporation and its network of thousands of grantees work together toward common, measurable goals, and we are seeing results. In 2007, Corporation programs mobilized nearly 4 million volunteers and mentored 600,000 disadvantaged youth.
In an effort to better understand and promote volunteering and service, the Corporation has conducted a wide range of evaluation and research reports that have provided key insights into the best practices for volunteer management, youth and boomer service, the pipeline from AmeriCorps to public service careers, and volunteering habits and preferences of Americans in every state and city. The agency’s Volunteer In America website is the most comprehensive assembly of volunteering data ever collected and is a vital tool for nonprofit and government leaders.
A key goal of the Bush Administration’s service agenda has been to strengthen the Corporation’s focus on volunteer recruitment and supervision, and that goal has been achieved. This was done by making volunteer mobilization a priority in grant applications and performance reporting; providing training and technical assistance through the Resource Center and national conference; promoting volunteer service through the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation; supporting the USA Freedom Corps and its www.volunteer.gov website, and transforming the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday into a national day of service. As one example of that success, last year AmeriCorps members mobilized or managed more than 1.7 million community volunteers.
While putting greater emphasis on leveraging additional community volunteers, the Corporation has also directed its programs to focus on tackling America’s toughest problems – from illiteracy and homelessness to poverty and the catastrophe of high school dropouts. This focus on solving serious problems helped move service and volunteering from being seen as something nice on the periphery to something necessary and central to the way America tackles its challenges.
When Hurricane Katrina unleashed a wave of devastation across the Gulf Coast, national service programs were on the scene from day one and have remained the backbone of volunteer response and relief efforts for more than three years. To date, more than 105,000 national service volunteers have served 5.4 million hours in the Gulf and have recruited and managed more than 405,000 community volunteers – more than a third of the total volunteers. The Corporation has put the lessons learned from Katrina to work in other disasters since including the Midwestern floods, Western forest fires, and the hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast this year.
“David has done an extraordinary job of lifting up the larger volunteer sector by setting an ambitious strategic vision, doing innovative and important research, and by creating programs and partnerships that have measurably advanced the field,” said Michelle Nunn, CEO of the Points of Light Institute and
co-founder of the HandsOn Network. “David has created a vision for the Corporation that weaves together national service and community volunteering in a powerful new way. Perhaps most importantly, David has led the field and the nation to embrace the idea that volunteering is not just nice, but a necessary and vital way for America to tackle our toughest problems.”
Eisner is quick to point out that the many accomplishments over the past five years were a team effort, achieved through the leadership of a strong and effective bipartisan board, a sophisticated network of state commissions and grantees, and a talented and dedicated staff. “You'll find no team of more passionate, hard-working federal employees than those at the Corporation,” Eisner said.
Eisner also thanked his Chief of Staff Nicky Goren, who will assume duties as Acting CEO on Monday, calling her an effective and experienced leader for volunteering and national service. Eisner said he has no plans for his next professional step, and he looks forward to spending time with his wife and four children as he considers what comes next. Whatever that is, Eisner pledged to remain a champion and cheerleader for national service and volunteering.