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Managing Cities' Growing Volunteer Pools

Cities are using new grant money to install ‘chief volunteer officers.’

Cities have always had chief financial officers, chief information officers and chiefs of staff. But are municipalities ready for chief service officers? This newly minted role may be a sign of the times, as cities struggling to make ends meet increasingly turn to volunteers to do jobs, some of which were once handled by someone who received a government paycheck. The problem is that it often takes a professional to coordinate, direct and oversee a small army of volunteers.

Thanks to a $2 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Rockefeller Foundation and other groups, eligible cities are receiving financing to hire a services czar to marshal groups of volunteers to tackle local government problems.

The effort, called Cities of Service, started in September 2009 after the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act challenged cities to think of new uses for volunteers. The problem, according to experts, has been the disconnect between local needs and volunteers’ desires to help communities.

“Cities around the country are facing enormous challenges, and mayors have an opportunity to make the most of our greatest asset: public-spirited citizens and organizations,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg when the project was announced.

Initially starting with mayors from 17 cities, the program has grown to include 111 coalition members, including 20 cities that received grants to hire chief service officers. Cities of Service’s purpose is to identify local community sectors that most need volunteers, match service programs with volunteers and share best practices.

In New York City, the program has focused on health. Volunteers -- 56,000 of them -- have been trained in CPR, delivered 160,000 flu vaccinations and led more than 200 free fitness classes, serving more than 7,000 people in neighborhoods with high obesity levels. Elsewhere, cities have considered or started using volunteers in public safety, education, housing for the homeless, environmental causes and flood protection.

The grants are meant to aid cities in giving leadership to volunteer efforts. To receive a grant, all applicant cities must have at least 100,000 residents according to the 2000 U.S. Census and be home to at least one community college or a four-year public or private university.

The question with any job-hiring grant is one of long-term effectiveness. Will cities continue to fund a position for a volunteer czar once the money is gone? The expectation, of course, is that the value of having such a professional to coordinate legions of unpaid volunteers will outweigh any fiscal constraints, and that cities will have long left behind any lingering effects of the recession.

Similar questions can be asked about the effectiveness of volunteers. Can they be as effective as a paid city worker? Can their altruism be sustained over time so that the services they’re delivering remain effective? These are questions that cities must address at some point. But with localities in desperate need of help, the idea of hiring a service chief to develop and carry out plans for volunteers seems like a pragmatic step for now.

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
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