NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 27, 2009

The president has recently signed into law the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which authorizes a huge expansion of the Americorps program, potentially tripling the number of its government-paid "volunteers."  The legislation was heralded as a victory for patriotism and public service.  But is it truly good news?  Those who cherish the independence of American philanthropy and the nonprofits it supports actually have reason for worry, says Howard Husock, vice president for policy research at the Manhattan Institute.

The past two decades have seen an explosion of new, inventive nonprofits established and operated with little or no government support.  But the Kennedy Act threatens to thwart this creative movement.  It will throw so much money at nascent programs that these otherwise independent efforts will lurch after federal dollars and bend toward government directives, says Husock.

Consider the Americorps expansion:

  • First, the program is nothing like Works Progress Administration or the Civilian Conservation Corps -- government-run operations with recruits in uniform, building trails and bridges -- it's a grant program in which people are the prize.
  • Organizations that want its federally subsidized free labor must apply to "service commissions" established, by statute, in all 50 states and whose members are appointed by governors.
  • Then there's the legislation's new "social innovation fund," which promises to bring with it big money: five-year grants, renewable for another five, of between $1 million and $10 million.
  • The funds will come, however, with tight strings -- government will specify what most needs doing.

Moreover, nonprofits on the receiving end of the fund's dollars will have to "consult with a diverse cross-section of community representatives." 

Sadly, social entrepreneurs -- who have often started organizations to help us cope with the failure of government programs -- may well be tempted by the big money.  But that won't be the best way to serve America, says Husock.

Source: Howard Husock, "Eating From the Hand That Bites You," Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2009.

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