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Sagawa Discusses Service in Pittsburgh

Serving Pittsburgh: The city can raise volunteering to a whole new level

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

By Shirley Sagawa

The weak economy continues to leave people out of work and in need of help. Nonprofit groups are struggling to keep up with demand, but one piece of good news is that volunteering is up, according to data released last month by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

In Pittsburgh, one in four residents volunteers, making Pittsburgh the 25th out of 51 large cities in volunteering. That’s a good start, but it means that three out of four Pittsburghers don’t give their time.

Now, with a grant announced late last month by Cities of Service, an initiative of Bloomberg Philanthropies, Pittsburgh can flip that percentage. With this grant, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has funds to hire a chief service officer — an innovative new position that will help the city raise its volunteer rate and use volunteer service strategically to attack the city’s toughest challenges.

Volunteering is a longstanding American tradition. Volunteers played a critical role in building this country, from the early pioneers who raised each others’ barns and quilted each others’ blankets to those who ran the Underground Railroad and built the Appalachian Trail.

Volunteers were often pioneers whose work led to whole professional fields or American institutions. Public libraries, fire departments and social work began with volunteers. So, too, did broadcast radio, adult education, Morse code and professional baseball. Pro bono volunteer lawyers argued the historic Supreme Court cases that created the right to counsel and the right to “Miranda” warnings when you are arrested. Volunteers bought Bill Gates his first computer.

Although many people think of volunteers as nice but not necessary, that’s just not the case. While researching my recent book, “The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers are Transforming America,” I found hundreds of examples of contemporary organizations that are achieving significant, measurable results against key challenges.

Among them are a volunteer tutoring program that eliminated racial gaps in reading in an urban school district, a youth-led energy-saving effort that has reduced CO2 emissions by tens of millions of pounds and a program where volunteer MBAs teach business skills to prisoners, reducing their recidivism rate dramatically. These are just a few examples of efforts that any local leader could adapt to almost any community.

Today’s volunteer workforce is changing both in the types of service needed and how people want to serve. Gone are the days of “least common denominator” volunteering when the task had to be something that anyone could do. Many volunteers today are looking to use their skills, not engage in a rote activity. Pro bono service is not just for lawyers, but for PR specialists, technology experts, systems engineers and many others.

Volunteers can offer many pairs of hands to undertake tasks that seem beyond our grasp and community knowledge that can power outreach efforts and sustain a neighborhood turnaround — or build the bridges that help people find their way out of poverty.

Yet despite this potential, it has been the rare policy maker who has included service in any comprehensive plan to address an issue. Instead, most nonprofit organizations work in isolation, scraping together the resources they need to engage volunteers productively, with their work often out of the view of other public problem solvers.

Pittsburgh’s new chief service officer will have a good base to build upon. Jumpstart, for example, pairs University of Pittsburgh student volunteers with Head Start students for one-on-one attention. The result: The tutored students improved their school-readiness skills by 29 percent above those of their peers. Similarly, Literacy• AmeriCorps members and the volunteers they recruited in Pittsburgh are helping thousands of adults learn to read or to speak English. And Pittsburgh Cares matches nearly 20,000 volunteers with positions each year.

With its new chief service officer, Pittsburgh joins California and New York City in this innovative new approach to public service. In 2008, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger became the first state leader to give his service commissioner a seat at the cabinet table. The next year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed the nation’s first chief service officer. In both cases, the profile of service as a strategy was raised so that other cabinet secretaries and senior staff began to recognize its power to address the challenges they faced.

Now Pittsburgh has the opportunity to put its own stamp on this new way of doing the people’s business — by leveraging the power of the people themselves.

Shirley Sagawa is an author and a visiting fellow with the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

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