Inside the Fight to Save AmeriCorps

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Washington, D.C.—The battle to save AmeriCorps began at breakfast.

It was May 16, and more than a dozen executives from some of the country’s biggest AmeriCorps recipients gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center here, responding to a call to arms by lobbyist Eugene Sofer.

Sofer, who represents nonprofits that rely on AmeriCorps members, told the gathering about his uneasy feeling: that AmeriCorps funding for the upcoming 2003 program year was in far more jeopardy than the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) had let on. A cloud of uncertainty hovering over the CNCS – stemming from poor accounting practices, an inadequate trust fund, a congressional investigation and a leadership shakeup – threatened to cost the organizations he represents millions of dollars.

Sofer had discovered, while attending the Innovations in Civic Participation (ICP) conference on national service that week at the Reagan Building, that other AmeriCorps supporters shared his unease. “It dawned on me and others that the threats facing AmeriCorps were sufficiently large that the individual streams would not be able to prevent it,” says Sofer, who helped write the 1993 legislation that created AmeriCorps. “We would have to work together.”

Those gathering at the breakfast before that day’s conference included Dorothy Stoneman, president and founder of YouthBuild USA; Sally Prouty, president of the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps; Calvin George, special projects director for the National Association of Community Health Centers; ICP Executive Director Susan Stroud; and John Gomperts, CEO of the Experience Corps.

They formed an ad hoc committee to gauge how serious the funding problem might be and what should be done about it. “We began from there to reach out to other organizations, compiling mailing lists of people that might be interested. The response was overwhelming,” says Sofer, who lobbies for the Coalition for Effective National Service, a nascent organization of several AmeriCorps “national directs” – such as Public Allies, Jumpstart, Teach for America and City Year.

Thus began the battle over federal plans to drastically cut AmeriCorps – plans that could cripple scores of youth-serving programs this year and affect their funding for years to come.

AmeriCorps has been targeted by Republican budget hawks almost since its inception under the Clinton administration, but it has become a central element of President Bush’s call to national service and volunteerism. It is one of three primary CNCS programs, along with the Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America.

The CNCS funds AmeriCorps members through several grants programs: about 25 percent in direct grants to national organizations (made in three-year commitments); and about 75 percent through formula grants to state-appointed service commissions and state competitive grants to programs nominated by state service commissions. Organizations can be funded through a combination of grant streams.

Critics say AmeriCorps created the crisis through scandalous mismanagement. “We had an accounting problem. It was a serious accounting problem,” CNCS CEO Les Lenkowsky admitted in July. “There were a couple of other problems as well. We, in fact, did have ways of fixing them. Instead it’s turned into a debacle.”

Lenkowsky and AmeriCorps supporters agree that the real victims would be local nonprofits, such as the Redwood Community Action Agency’s Straight Up AmeriCorps program in Eureka, Calif., which face shutting down some of their services if they don’t get AmeriCorps workers this fall.

To prevent that, the people at the Washington breakfast have spent the subsequent months trying to rally the country behind AmeriCorps, using modern tactics like e-mails along with old-fashioned public demonstrations, and everything in between: political and business connections, phone calls, advertisements and the news media. The campaign is not over.

Following is a step-by-step breakdown of the battle so far:

Late May – New Coalition

Soon after the gathering at the Reagan Building, the AmeriCorps supporters float an idea to create a Save AmeriCorps Coalition. According to a May 22 e-mail by Sofer, the new coalition will have two goals: “Grow AmeriCorps and fully fund the trust.”

Sofer notes that other organizations are concerned about the potential funding crisis but are “working in relative isolation.” He and the new coalition want to bring them into the fold.

Early June – The Team Grows

Members of the ad hoc committee meet quickly in Washington at a City Year policy forum the first week of June, and in Baltimore days later during the Points of Light national conference.

CNCS keeps getting differing legal opinions about the status of its trust fund, and warns AmeriCorps agencies that funding for the 2003 program year – which would begin in the late summer – might be delayed.

The Save AmeriCorps Coalition grows quickly; each new member brings such resources as mailing lists, memberships in other associations and alumni from different service programs. Soon, the coalition counts 13 major organizations in its membership:

America’s Service Commissions (an association of gubernatorially appointed agencies that direct federal grants at the state level), Citizens Schools, City Year, the Experience Corps, Jumpstart, the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, the National and Community Service Coalition, the National Service Alumni Network, Public Allies, Save the Children, Teach for America, YouthBuild USA and Youth Service America.

One reason for the rapid growth is that many national and community service organizations had connected with each other in the past. “It wasn’t like the coalitions were created when this hit,” says Paul Schmitz, CEO of the Milwaukee-based Public Allies. “They were already working at the vice-president level.”

The coalition becomes a grassroots machine of considerable reach and potential influence. But it is still working mostly on rumor and instinct. No one is sure how deep the cuts might be.

Early June – Drastic Cuts Loom

The CNCS delays the announcement of the first round of awards for state competitive grants in 2003 because of a lingering accounting dispute between the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the General Accounting Office (GAO). The simmering feud between the two agencies – with the corporation in the middle – has reached a stalemate.

The OMB oversees federal spending; the GAO is the investigative branch of Congress. The two agencies agreed there was not enough money in the CNCS education trust fund to support 50,000 new AmeriCorps positions for 2003.

AmeriCorps members earn a $4,725 educational award for a year of service, and about half receive a living allowance of $9,300 plus health benefits. The educational awards, which members have seven years to use, come from the trust fund.

According to a June 6 letter from AmeriCorps Director Rosie Mauk to AmeriCorps agencies, if the CNCS follows the GAO guidelines, it could fund only 35,000 positions this year. The OMB’s stance would allow funding for 50,000 positions. But either way, AmeriCorps would have to subtract 22,000 positions that had been awarded in 2002.

With those kinds of numbers, Mauk’s letter warns, there would be drastic cuts to the state competitive grants program.
At the Points of Light meeting, just days after the CNCS announcement, the ad hoc committee begins to realize that the corporation has not been forthright about the depths of the cuts. Information has been leaking out from state service commissions – the gubernatorially appointed boards that disburse state formula grants – about dramatic reductions.

“We really proceeded to piece together how significant the cuts were going to be,” says Rob Waldron, CEO of Jumpstart, an organization that uses AmeriCorps members to tutor young children from low-income families.

June 16 – Hitting the Fan

The CNCS announces that it will follow the guidelines proposed by the GAO – “out of deference to the views of our congressional overseers,” Mauk says – and will fund only 3,000 positions under the state competitive grants program. Of 487 grant applications, only 54 are approved; another 57 are deferred and 376 are rejected.

The national service community is stunned and outraged. Suddenly, programs that relied on AmeriCorps members are looking at cuts of up to 80 percent, and sometimes more.

“No one had prepared us for cuts of 80 percent. No one,” says Schmitz of Public Allies. “If I had known that back in the winter, I would have fought hard. It would have been a hell of a lot easier to get it passed as a year-end supplemental” appropriations bill.

Coalition members whir into high gear. Many face the prospect of closing their doors.

“It was a spontaneous response to a drastic loss of a network [that] people have spent decades and their life’s passions working on,” says Stoneman of YouthBuild USA. “Suddenly, we were on the phone talking to each other every day. Lo and behold, we had contacts with lots and lots of people.”

One of the first calls City Year CEO and co-founder Alan Khazei makes is to U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a big fan of City Year. Under the new funding plan, the state of Rhode Island would lose 450 of its 500 AmeriCorps positions. Khazei asks Reed to lead an effort to get Congress to immediately give the CNCS an additional $200 million for AmeriCorps.

June 17 – Signing On

One day after the corporation had announced the 54 state competitive grants, Reed has a letter signed by 44 U.S. senators (including eight Republicans) calling on the Bush administration to request the $200 million.

Reed would not have been able to collect that many signatures that quickly without the help of coalition members, who called senators and asked them to support the call for additional funds, Senate staffers said.

The coalition had become a leviathan of Hobbesian vision: a mass of individuals working as a unit to produce results greater than any of them could achieve individually.

The next few days are a blur of activity, both in Washington and elsewhere.

June 19 – Small Victory

By now the House and Senate have passed legislation to clarify accounting rules for the corporation’s education awards trust fund. The greater flexibility allows the corporation to increase its awards slightly for 2003, closer to the levels envisioned by the executive branch’s OMB.

Instead of 80 percent cuts, programs would probably be reduced by about 55 percent, the corporation announces. That still cuts too deep for the coalition. City Year, for example, would lose more than $8 million and more than half its 1,000 AmeriCorps workers. Jumpstart anticipates closing programs based at Yale and Arizona State universities and the University of Rochester.

Mid-June – Daily Talk

Members are in constant contact for the first several weeks following the announced cuts. They schedule daily conference calls, says Steve Culbertson, CEO of Youth Service America (which does not receive AmeriCorps grants). Most of the calls are coordinated by City Year staff.

By frequently communicating, Sofer says, “We keep the message the same.”

And they use e-mail extensively. “I have hundreds of e-mails from people on the committee from the past several weeks,” Stoneman says.

Many members of the coalition have their own list-serves and membership newsletters. Those services become vehicles of the coalition, taking the message and calls for action further across the nation.

Richard Leimsider, founder and CEO of the National Service Alumni Network, keeps 1,000 former members of VISTA – another AmeriCorps program – updated daily. Members of his group forward the missives to other organizations and individuals, eventually reaching an estimated 10,000 former VISTA members.

Although there is a core working group within the coalition, assignments are not delegated and there is no one leader. Coalition members most frequently credit Sofer, City Year’s Khazei and AnnMaura Connolly, his vice president of public policy and special initiatives, for coordinating the group’s activities.

“It’s not like there’s an overall magical master plan,” Stoneman says. “It’s not like we’re voting. It’s more, maybe AnnMaura says which governors have signed on and which ones have not been contacted. It gets spontaneously taken up.”

Even members of the coalition are surprised at how quickly the organization grows.

“I think it’s a little overdue,” says Sarah Pearson, president of the National and Community Service Coalition, an advocacy organization formed in 1992. “What it took to get people organized is the cold realization that the money isn’t going to be there. People are coming out of the woodwork because they realize, ‘Wow, this is going to happen to me.’

“The call to action is an emergency call to action. It’s the 11th hour.”

Also key to the early success, Sofer says, is that “we worked hard at the beginning to develop a message.” For instance, he says that when coalition members learned that Bush would ask Congress to approve a supplemental spending bill for 2003 to cover disasters, such as forest fires, “the message became, ‘Ask for funding in the supplemental,’ ” Sofer said. “That was the message: ‘We need the money, we need the money now.’ ”

June 20 – Rallies

Save AmeriCorps rallies begin – first in Rhode Island and Seattle. Within days, more than a dozen rallies are held across the nation.

June 25 – Gathering Steam

By now, 165 members of the U.S. House have signed a letter of support for additional emergency funds for AmeriCorps. That number would eventually swell to 233, due to efforts by national service champions such as Reps. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), Harold E. Ford (D-Tenn.), Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Ruben E. Hinojosa (D-Texas).

June 26 – Corporate Friends

The coalition runs a full-page ad in The New York Times heralding its cause and outlining the ramifications of decreased funding. Jumpstart’s Waldron had contacted Starbucks, the primary corporate sponsor of the tutoring program, for help. Starbucks donated an ad credit it had with the Times to publicize the issue.

Other coalition members had contacted their corporate sponsors and received similar support, including ads in the Financial Times of London and the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. The Financial Times is owned by Pearson, an international media company and a major contributor to Jumpstart (and no relation to Sarah Pearson). City Year sponsor Timberland also contributes to the ad campaign.

Public Allies’ Schmitz summarizes the coalition conversations with corporate leaders like this: “Look, this funding is being cut. That’s one leg of the stool. You’re another. Help.”

The same day The New York Times ad appears, the coalition unveils its website: The site, secured by Public Allies and maintained by City Year staff, provides comprehensive information about the funding issue. It also includes numerous suggestions and opportunities to lobby lawmakers, the media and local officials.

According to the website, emergency funding is supported by 44 governors, 79 senators, 228 House members, 55 after-school leaders, 250 private sector leaders, 1,180 organizations, more than 80 newspaper editorials (including Youth Today), 190 college and university presidents and 148 mayors. Nearly all of those organizations and individuals were contacted initially by members of the coalition or their organizations.

Through the end of June and into July, coalition members generate media attention at lightning speed. They also lobby the administration to add AmeriCorps money to its upcoming supplemental emergency appropriations request.

July 3 – New Rules

Bush signs the Strengthening AmeriCorps Program Act, which establishes clear accounting guidelines for the educational trust fund.

July 7 – No Disaster

Bush sends his formal supplemental request to the Hill, seeking $1.9 million in emergency funds for forest fires, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and NASA. There’s nothing for AmeriCorps.

Coalition members are disappointed, but not surprised. The president had approached Congress informally about supplemental disaster funds several weeks before the CNCS announced the anticipated cuts in mid-June.

“We were told the president had given his word” to ask Congress for disaster relief only, says City Year’s Khazei.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Congress can’t put more money in.

July 9 – Half a Slice

The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously agrees to include $100 million for AmeriCorps in its version of the supplemental appropriations request – half the amount the coalition wanted.

The key for coalition members is to get money for the current fiscal year, 2003, which is what the Senate proposal would do. AmeriCorps programs generally start in late summer, just before the end of the federal budget year.

Adding money only in fiscal 2004 would delay funding for nine months or more. By then, many AmeriCorps-staffed programs would probably already have gone under.

July 10 – Euphoria

The Senate votes 71-21 to keep the $100 million in its version of the supplemental spending bill.

“People were really euphoric after the Senate vote,” City Year’s Khazei says. He and other coalition members note that eight senators who said they supported the $100 million add-on were not in Washington to vote. “We felt like wow, if we could get 79 votes in the Senate …”

The same day, Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees CNCS funding, releases a statement blasting the Senate’s action.

“My opposition … comes down to an issue of accountability,” the statement says. “We shouldn’t reward an agency that violates federal law and mismanages taxpayer dollars by providing additional funding until clear and consistent reforms have been enacted.”

Walsh says he supports AmeriCorps in principle, and notes that his subcommittee increased funding for the 2004 program year.

July 11 – Leadership Change

Lenkowsky, CEO of the CNCS, announces his resignation, effective Aug. 15, citing a desire to return to academia. Bush announces he will nominate former AOL Time Warner executive David Eisner to replace Lenkowsky.

July 15 – Frustration

Through the leadership of Walsh, the House Appropriations Committee approves $480 million for the CNCS for fiscal 2004, enough money to support 55,000 AmeriCorps members in that year. Nothing is approved for 2003.

National service advocates are startled. They are used to watching the House zero out funding for what was a legacy of the Clinton years. But they are also frustrated: The added money would not be available until next year. The crisis remains.

“It’s amazing how the Republican leadership just doesn’t understand. They’ll fund us for next year and want us to wither on the vine this year,” says Mark Lazzara, executive director of the West Seneca Youth Bureau in New York and acting chairman of the New York State AmeriCorps Alliance, a coalition of 27 agencies throughout the state that coordinate AmeriCorps members’ work.

Lazzara expects to close at least four programs unless emergency funding is approved.

July 17 – More Grants

The CNCS announces that, based on the CNCS accounting law Bush signed July 3, more grants are being awarded. The CNCS awards $133 million through national direct, state competitive, state formula and education-award-only grants to support approximately 20,000 new AmeriCorps members for the 2003 program year.

July 25 – The House Strikes Back

The coalition’s leviathan meets its match in the House of Representatives, where the political machine crafted by the Republican leadership proves invulnerable.

Before the House considers major legislation, it must first approve a rule that sets the terms for debate and amendment. The Rules Committee – stacked with party loyalists from both sides – crafts the rule for each bill under close direction from party leadership.

For the supplemental spending bill for 2003, the GOP-led Rules Committee crafts a resolution that allows only one amendment – unrelated to AmeriCorps funding – to be offered. AmeriCorps supporters must defeat the rule if they want to add funding to AmeriCorps.

Party leaders tolerate the occasional dissent on policy votes. They do not, as a rule, allow such flexibility on procedural votes like rules resolutions, because party unity is critical to controlling the legislative agenda of the House. Republicans hold 229 of the 435 seats. The 205 Democrats need to find only 12 Republicans (there is one Independent who generally votes with Democrats) on any given issue to defeat a rule and wrest legislative control of the House floor.

Not a single Republican votes against the rule. There will be no floor vote on AmeriCorps funding.

For Khazei, for whom this process is a crash course in American politics, the House vote is a painful lesson.

“If the leadership doesn’t support something, it doesn’t even come to the floor for a vote,” Khazei says. “The parties always follow the leadership on procedural votes.”

The defeat stings members of the coalition. They are even more surprised by what happens next. The House elects not to select conference committee members to work out differences with the Senate supplemental bill. It votes to go on recess until Sept. 3, before the Senate can act on the bill.

Prospects of a compromise on the funding – a possibility floated by no less than House Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) – evaporate.

“We were devastated when the conferees weren’t appointed,” Khazei says.

July 30 – Trouble From the Top

Coalition members are still smarting when they pick up the Wall Street Journal this morning. Lenkowsky is quoted in an editorial questioning the worth of AmeriCorps. He tells a forum at the Brookings Institution that day that his comments were taken out
of context.

July 31 – Another Disappointment

The Senate decides not to amend the House version of the supplemental spending bill, which would have forced a conference between Senate and House members, thus delaying emergency disaster funding. Instead, the Senate grudgingly agrees to the House version and leaves Washington for the month of August.

Early August – Where’d It Go Wrong?

In the following days, some coalition members say perhaps they started lobbying the House too late.

“We had focused our attention on the Senate. The House has more people, and we got there later,” says Jumpstart’s Waldron.
Others are not sure any amount of lobbying would have been effective in the House.

“There are certain lawmakers who are never going to come around. It’s implanted in their DNA to oppose government-sponsored community service,” says Schmitz from Public Allies. “The second coming of Christ could happen and he could join AmeriCorps and nothing would happen.”

Congressional staff said the coalition lobbied hard, but not effectively.

“AmeriCorps is a popular program. You don’t have to work that hard to get people to help AmeriCorps. The line got drawn at the supplemental” spending bill, a House Republican aide says. “But for a lot of [House] members, the coalition isn’t addressing the fundamental problems.”

Those problems, the aide said, essentially boil down to mismanagement at the corporation:

“Part of the problem is going to be rewarding bad management behavior.”

Coalition members note, however, that the CNCS hired three new AmeriCorps senior program managers last December, implemented new accounting standards in January and appointed a new chief operating officer (James F. Manning) in July.

Lenkowsky may be replaced soon as well, although the formal process will probably take months. The Senate must first confirm Eisner, a consultant for the Network for Good, an Internet-based philanthropy resource. He has also worked for three Republican members of the House.

Late August – Trying Again

Congress is quiet in August; both chambers are on recess. But the calm on Capitol Hill belies what is happening at the state and congressional district levels. Coalition members plan to present their case personally as congressional lawmakers make their usual summer tours around their home districts. The coalition is also seeking 100,000 electronic signatures for a petition to the president and Congress.

Congressional staff report getting visits and phone calls in August from organizations and individuals urging them to reconsider the House position on supplemental funding for AmeriCorps.

Coalition members hope the recess activities, which include several rallies and a reintensified outreach campaign, will bear fruit in the fall.

Even though both chambers have passed the supplemental bill, Congress may revisit emergency funding. The Senate had incorporated its $100 million AmeriCorps proposal for 2003 in the 2004 legislative branch appropriations bill.

“When Congress comes back in September, this issue is not dead,” says Schmitz from Public Allies. As the second anniversary of 9/11 draws near, “it will be a good time again to focus on this issue. … There’ll be a significant effort to get this back on the radar screen. We haven’t given up.”

National service advocates also hope the Bush administration will take a leadership role in asking for the supplemental funding for 2003.

“The strong voice of the president would really help right now,” says Mark Shriver, vice president and managing director of United States programs for Save the Children. Under current funding plans, Shriver’s organization expects to lose all 85 of its AmeriCorps members.

The administration has not requested the emergency funds for AmeriCorps publicly, nor has it opposed additional funding.

“There have been calls to some people [in the administration] and some meetings, to get the president to make a declarative statement,” Sofer says. “Various people have spoken to various members of the administration at the very highest levels.”

City Year’s Khazei hopes the House action on the supplemental legislation – which contained less than half of what the president requested for emergency relief – will give the administration the opportunity to negotiate for more money, and that the president might include AmeriCorps.

Aug. 15 – Onus of the Bonus

Fortunately for the coalition, Congress is not in session when The Washington Post reports that the CNCS had awarded more than $400,000 in employee bonuses. CNCS spokesman Sandy Scott says the bonuses were routine and would have no impact on AmeriCorps grants.

Coalition members are unsure how news of the bonuses will affect their congressional efforts in September.

“I’m sure there’s going to be a mix of reactions,” says Pearson of the National and Community Service Coalition. “I know the CNCS has been understaffed and overworked. I hope people will keep that mind. But I’m sure it won’t sit well with people who’ve lost programs.”

The news angers Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), one of the coalition’s staunchest congressional allies.

“It is outrageous and unacceptable if senior executives responsible for the corporation’s bureaucratic boondoggle are rewarding themselves with bonuses. … Mismanagement by the bureaucracy has wreaked havoc at AmeriCorps,” Mikulski says in a statement prepared for Youth Today. “If this proves true, I will vigorously work to eliminate their authority to ever give bonuses again, and I will seek restitution from those who caused the boondoggle and got a bonus.”


Corporation for National and Community Service
1201 New York Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20525
(800) 942-2677

Save AmeriCorps Coalition

Gene Sofer
Susquehanna Group
4615 29th Pl. NW
Washington DC 20008
(202) 686-1040

Alan Khazei, CEO
City Year
285 Columbus Ave.
Boston, MA 02116
(617) 927-2500

Paul Schmitz, CEO
Public Allies
633 W. Wisconsin Ave., #610
Milwaukee, WI 53203
(414) 273-0533

Sarah Pearson, President
National and Community Service Coalition
1410 Q St. NW
Washington, DC 20009
(202) 775-973

Causes of the Funding Shortage

There are four primary reasons that AmeriCorps funding and enrollment is limited for the 2003 program year, according to officials at the Corporation for National and Community Service:

• Congress reduced the funds available for grants to $175 million for 2003, from $240 million for 2002.

• Congress capped enrollment across all AmeriCorps programs at 50,000.

• The CNCS approved about 22,000 more slots in 2002 than could be supported by its trust fund, and is required to count those enrollments towards the 2003 cap of 50,000.

• The education trust fund for 2003 was funded at $100 million.