Converting good intentions in to greater impact

Can a City be a Service Enterprise?

Can a City be a Service Enterprise?

By Shirley Sagawa, Reimagining Service Council Member

A decade ago, that would be hard to imagine. Certainly mayors on occasion used the bully pulpit to call for civic engagement and enjoyed handing out Thanksgiving turkeys at soup kitchens. These traditional activities, however well-intended, fall outside the purview of what Reimagining Service calls a service enterprise – entities that target volunteers strategically to address high priority community needs.

Then in 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to make New York City the first “City of Service,” creating a high-impact service plan and appointing the nation’s first Chief Service Officer, a senior city official dedicated to developing a citywide volunteer service plan to address priority city challenges. NYC Service, the unit of the mayor’s office charged with implementing this plan and measuring its results, engaged New Yorkers to participate in volunteer-driven initiatives that best fit their. (Today those projects range from “Cool Roofs” -- coating rooftops with reflective paint to conserve energy and reduce building carbon emissions -- to contributing to the Hurricane Sandy recovery effort.)

Other mayors followed suit. Sixteen mayors joined Mayor Bloomberg to launch Cities of Service, a bipartisan coalition of mayors committed to using citizen service to address pressing local challenges. Today, more than 150 mayors have joined the coalition, pledging to develop coordinated strategies to deploy volunteers to meet their cities’ greatest needs. With support from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Rockefeller Foundation, 20 mayors appointed their own Chief Service Officers who developed high-impact service plans for their cities. This launched a national movement, which includes over 30 mayors who are employing locally funded Chief Service Officers in their administrations today.

These cities have launched dozens of service enterprises of their own, enlisting local nonprofits, businesses, and residents in their efforts. For example, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl targeted the 20,000 blighted properties in Pittsburgh neighborhoods as a major challenge. He identified Love Your Block, based on the Cities of Service Blueprint of the same name, as a strategy to address this problem. Nonprofit organizations and community groups were invited to propose volunteer-led projects to transform their blocks with a small grant and help from key City departments. With grant money, the selected groups purchased equipment and supplies, engaged their neighbors, and rolled up their sleeves to carry out their own brands of block beautification and repair.

In 2011, Pittsburgh exceeded its goal of improving 10 blocks through Love Your Block nearly fivefold, revitalizing 47 blocks, creating 16 green spaces, and removing nearly 6,000 pounds of trash. Other projects included a popup café, community gardens, rain gardens, memorial restorations, an athletic complex renovation, and vacant lot remediation. Based on the success of year one, Pittsburgh continued Love Your Block for a second year, with a goal of completing 50 additional block revitalization projects.

Other cities have carried out similarly impact-focused initiatives. In Baltimore, volunteers who once were substance abusers are helping others end their addiction through Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Recovery Corps. In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael A. Nutter has made volunteer “Graduation Coaches” part of his city-wide initiative to reduce the dropout rate. And in Little Rock, Mayor Mark Stodola’s “Love Your School” initiative is addressing the high childhood obesity rate through volunteer-led nutrition and exercise programs.

Shrinking city budgets and growing demand for services may well have spurred on the Cities of Service movement. And in many cities, including Little Rock, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, AmeriCorps VISTA members are behind the scenes, managing the volunteers and building connections across organizations. With AmeriCorps funding at risk in Washington, scaling these projects may be slow. Nonetheless, it’s not a stretch to imagine a future where volunteers play a central role in local efforts everywhere as mayors turn to them not out of desperation for resources, but as Reimagining Service envisions, out of appreciation for the impact they can achieve through service.

Shirley Sagawa is the author of The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers are Transforming America, a consultant to Cities of Service, and a member of the Reimagining Service Council.