Too Many Volunteers?

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Rasuli Lewis has been with AmeriCorps since its inception a decade ago. So this March, when word filtered down that funding might not be available for the 85-member AmeriCorps project that he runs at the Harlem Children’s Zone, he knew not to sweat it. Funding problems are “not a new experience for AmeriCorps,” Lewis jokes.

But Lewis was floored when he heard in June that his program would receive no money for the next fiscal year, which begins in September. This meant he would not be able to bring back any of his AmeriCorps volunteers–and he would lose his job. “We made promises to the community that we had hoped to fulfill,” he says. “It’s very awkward for us.”

Congress authorizes AmeriCorps to enroll 50,000 members a year, who each work with nonprofit groups on projects ranging from tutoring to building new homes. About 6,000 of those members serve in New York, coordinated by a state commission that acts as liaison between Washington and the local nonprofits. Everyone involved in the program knew it faced some financial challenges in the coming fiscal year, due to what seemed to be relatively niggling accounting problems. But this spring, AmeriCorps’ parent agency, the Corporation for National and Community Service, stunned both the state commissions and the nonprofits by announcing it would have to cut more than 20,000 volunteers.

This means that, of the approximately 3,000 AmeriCorps members who serve in New York via locally based groups, only 150 will be able to return to work next year. Barry Ford, vice president of external relations at The After-School Corporation, confirmed that all of those positions are expected to go to his organization’s New York program. Another 3,000 New York–based AmeriCorps members serve through national organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity or the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. The announcement means that at least half these members will lose their funding as well.

Congress was debating $100 million in emergency funding for AmeriCorps at press time. But even if legislators were to approve the new money–which appeared unlikely–local nonprofits doubt it will be enough to save many of their programs. And observers, from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) to longtime staffers at the program’s Washington-based headquarters, warn that the immediate crisis stems from deeply entrenched problems at the agency.

The full-time members working at the Harlem Children’s Zone and at other AmeriCorps sites receive health insurance and a $4,725 education grant, money that they have seven years to claim. AmeriCorps’ financial troubles stem from the Corporation’s failure to keep track of these modest educational awards, according to the GAO.

Last November, with congressional fighting over the fiscal year 2003 budget delaying new funds for all federal programs, the Corporation got nervous about its money. In fiscal year 2002, it had enlisted 67,000 members–even though Congress authorizes it to enroll only 50,000 a year. With no new money on the way, it decided to abruptly freeze enrollment.

This drew the attention of the Corporation’s congressional overseers, who promptly ordered a GAO investigation. In April, the GAO released its initial findings: The trust fund that pays for members’ education awards was in utter disarray.

The Corporation, the GAO said, poorly monitors its local grantees, allowing them to enroll more participants than are budgeted for. There is “little to no” communication between the executives who handle the AmeriCorps program itself and those who run the education trust. And owing to these factors, as well as to general accounting practices that the GAO found questionable, the agency has enrolled about 25,000 more members than its trust has money to fund scholarships for–though no one, from the GAO to the Corporation, can say exactly by how much AmeriCorps is over-obligated.

The Corporation is now forced to cut next year’s new enrollment by 22,000 members, so that it can flow the money it would have used on general program expenses for those slots into its education grant trust fund.

The GAO emphasized the disconnect between the trust and program managers. Corporation execs told the GAO they had believed the trust’s finances were robust. In the program’s early years, it had actually enrolled fewer members than the trust was funded to support, and those members have largely collected their education grants at a slower pace than predicted. As a result, the Corporation’s reports to Congress painted such a rosy picture that Congress took back $111 million it had budgeted for the trust during fiscal years 2000 and 2001. This is the money the program’s legislative supporters are now trying to put back.

Several New York City-based AmeriCorps grantees vigorously contest the GAO claim that local grantees drove the over-enrollment. Ford says that the After-School Corporation keeps a close accounting of all of its members. “We have worked very, very closely with the state commission,” Ford says. “They know who is participating.” Both the state commission and the Corporation failed to respond to requests for comment.

Much of the blame, local groups and Corporation staff say, lies with a new mechanism through which each program reports its membership. In 2000, all AmeriCorps programs began using a web-based reporting system. According to one former national program officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the Corporation badly botched the introduction of the computer system, offering minimal testing, training or tech support. Harlem Children’s Zone’s Lewis says the system is simply unreliable as a result. He claims that one of his former AmeriCorps members, whom he logged into the system as having completed her required hours two years ago, is still receiving calls from the national office, where officials are charging that she has not yet met her terms of service. Lewis says he relies on paper copies of all of his records. “You just have to save everything,” he says.

The details of the disaster mean little to Samara Kaufman, a Brooklyn site manager for the education nonprofit Jumpstart. Kaufman says that losing her AmeriCorps funding will cut her project by half, including her salary. “As sad as it would be, I would have to leave, because I would not be able to sustain myself,” she says. Even if more money comes in the future, she says her program might have to completely shut down and restart later–a process Kaufman calls unworkable.

“In terms of business, it makes no sense,” she says. “I don’t believe that a disagreement over what’s been called an accounting glitch is causing preschool students to be underserved by amazing college students.”

At the Grosvenor Neighborhood House on West 105th Street, 40 part-time AmeriCorps members work as mentors and tutors for over 120 elementary school children, primarily from Harlem and the Bronx. According to Robert Kee, the director of Grosvenor’s AmeriCorps program, his members, who range from middle-class women to college students, are a “saving grace” for the Grosvenor House.

But Kee can do nothing with the 50 resumes that have landed on his desk for next year’s AmeriCorps positions. And, as it stands now, his last day on the job is August 29. “If the money doesn’t come through, our program will shut down,” Kee says. “Unfortunately, it’s always the kids who lose out.”

Paul Fain is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.

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