Promoting Volunteer Service: Community Engagement to Solve Local Problems

January 23, 2012
by Julie Bosland

On January 16, the nation celebrated the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday as a national day of service, a "day on, not a day off." But in cities across America, the focus on service does not end there. Municipal leaders are increasingly viewing civic engagement and volunteerism as critical strategies for strengthening their communities throughout the year.

Volunteers can help the city achieve core municipal goals, from maintaining or expanding services in tight budget times to reacting to a local emergency. In Mesa, Ariz., volunteers are involved in many city departments and cultural venues (see related article), and in Nashville, Tenn., a city partnership with the local Hands On volunteer coordination office was invaluable when the city experienced an historic flood in 2010. 

Providing opportunities for citizens to help one another can strengthen the civic fabric of the community as well. Neighbor2Neighbor, the service department in Richmond, Va., is particularly focused on connecting residents to volunteer opportunities serving youth, elderly residents, and individuals with disabilities. In other communities - from Ukiah, Calif. (population 16,000), to New York City - time banks allow people to get credit for their service to others that they can exchange for services they need that are available through the time bank. 

City leaders can also mobilize residents to achieve broader community goals. Each spring, for example, volunteers in cities across the country help low-income residents claim the federal earned income tax credit through the volunteer income tax assistance program, increasing family financial stability and bringing millions of dollars into the local economy. In Louisville, Ky., more than 10,000 volunteers helped tutor public school students through the Every 1 Reads program to cut the overall proportion of novice readers in half over five years. By engaging in meaningful service opportunities, residents no longer wait for the city to solve a problem, but see that they can be a part of that solution. 

Finally, service opportunities can serve as an important bridge to deeper community engagement, both for adults and for youth who are exploring how they can contribute to their communities. City officials can intentionally structure a range of civic engagement options for residents - including not only service but also opportunities to participate in community planning and governance decisions - and provide encouragement, training and support to help them increase their level of involvement over time. 

Details: For more information about promoting service at the local level, contact Julie Bosland (NLC Institute for Youth, Education and Families) at (202) 626-3144 or bosland@nlc.org or Bonnie Mann (NLC Democratic Governance Initiative) at (202) 626-3125 or mann@nlc.org.