In 1989, youth work leaders in Washington, D.C., initiated a special day to recognize community service contributions by youth around the country, scraping together resources to get the word out.
Sixteen years later, National Youth Service Day (NYSD) is the most high-profile event in service-learning, involving 3 million youth last year in community projects. It serves as a stand-out example of how to expand a youth project by using the Internet, nonprofit collaboration and corporate partnerships.
NYSD actually runs for three days (April 15-17 this year) to accommodate youth of various religions. It’s designed to highlight the year-round efforts of young people to improve their communities. Around the country, youth, youth workers and teachers design and lead service projects in areas such as literacy, the environment and helping the elderly.
Bonner Foundation President Wayne Meisel, who then headed the Campus Outreach Opportunity League, first pitched the idea of a national service day to friends at the Independent Sector and Youth Service America, then run by founder Roger Landram.
Meisel says it’s no coincidence that youth service-learning and civic engagement subsequently received more attention. “I’m not going to say the reason there’s a Corporation for National and Community Service is because of Youth Service Day,” he says.
“But it did help bring [the field] CNCS and funding from major foundations.”
After several years, Meisel says, it became clear that YSA should lead the annual undertaking. “They could do the corporate thing better than anyone,” he says, referring to YSA’s ability to get companies to financially back youth service projects.
The event planning isn’t as haphazard as it once was, but it’s hardly scientific. YSA forges national and local partnerships and establishes lead agencies in each state, while making tools available to create service projects. This year’s events include beautifying a school in Fort Collins, Colo.; painting murals at a playground in Cornelius, Ore.; and building a bookshelf and library for a soup kitchen in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
The state agencies try to coordinate events, while YSA, its partners and its sponsors operate grant competitions for local projects. All the while, untold thousands download the toolkit off YSA’s website (www.ysa.org).
YSA President Steve Culbertson guesses that the number of projects has grown to “tens of thousands.” He says there’s no way to tell how many people run projects with no funding, using only the toolkit as their guide.
How It Grew
That’s not the worst problem to have for a president who, when he left the Environmental Defense Fund in 1996 to take over YSA, had one part-time staff member and 10 national partners to help coordinate National Youth Service Day.
Back then, the group mailed out about 5,000 of its toolkits each year to project sites to teach youth how to plan, organize and execute events. The biggest challenge was dispersion. “We had no website, no project registration online, no capacity to do listservs or e-mail outreach,” says Culbertson.
The Internet quickly became the backbone of the service day promotion machine. Last year, YSA distributed 145,000 tool kits, the vast majority of them downloaded rather than mailed. YSA’s e-mail newsletter helps get service day information to its partners in the nonprofit world and the media. Also helping is publicity received through Parade Magazine, a partner with a circulation of 39 million.
The contributions of more and more partners have particularly helped with two facets of NYSD’s development: getting out the toolkit and financially supporting service projects through mini-grants that will total $611,000 this year.
The grants are given to youth to develop and implement NYSD projects. Sears was the first to provide them, awarding $500 to a winner at each stop during the 36-city tour of pop idols The Backstreet Boys in 1999.
Now, the YSA network of funding partners is split between a large pool of nonprofits and a growing list of corporate supporters. YSA has forged alliances with nearly a dozen nonprofit organizations, including Youth Venture, Youth Leaders for Literacy and Communities in Schools. These groups use the YSA toolkit and framework for projects and conduct their own competitive grant processes. Collectively, they will give out $337,000 in small grants this year (generally $500 to $1,000 each) to help local organizations carry out projects.
The other grants come from NYSD’s four national sponsors – Walt Disney Co., The Bubel/Aiken Foundation, General Motors Corp. and the U.S. Department of Justice – and its smaller corporate sponsors, such as the AT&T, Verizon, and Motorola foundations and the Bridgestone/Firestone Trust Fund.
Some larger funders place caveats on their funding, although YSA staff carry out the grant competitions. AT&T grants money to children of its employees to set up projects at which their parents will volunteer. Motorola funds grants for the science- and math-based service projects of students in Chicago public schools. The Bubel/Aiken Foundation provides a total of $100,000 for projects developed and led by youth with disabilities.
At the center of NYSD’s rapid expansion, says Culbertson, is YSA’s partnership with State Farm Insurance. Three years ago, State Farm agreed to be the first significant national underwriter, making a multimillion-dollar commitment over several years. Each year the company provides a total $100,000 to YSA’s 50 lead agencies (which coordinate the plans for projects in each state), and 100 grants of $1,000 each to youth who propose and organize projects. More importantly, says Culbertson, State
Farm pays for staffing, travel, distribution and web support related to NYSD.
Growing interest in the grants is a good indicator of the event’s popularity. More than 380 agencies competed for the 50 lead agency grants this year, while 650 applicants vied for the 100 youth project grants.
State Farm employees throughout the country are another asset. “They deliver materials to tons of schools,” says Culbertson. “It’s just like having a national staff.”
“These projects are an eye-opener for youth who care about service. It’s a chance to see their future, even a career path,” says Beau Basset, the head of Alaska Youth as Resources, who has been organizing local Youth Service Day events for 13 years. “It’s not surprising that large corporations see it as a win-win to fund it.”
Culbertson is convinced that the project, armed with increased fiscal and technical support, is nowhere near its ceiling. Noting that 3 million youth were involved last year, he says, “there are 70 million children in this country that could be involved.”
Culbertson actually sees that lofty number as YSA’s target. “We got 330 million media hits last year,” he says, referring to mentions of Youth Service Day in print, broadcast and online media. “What would a billion hits do? We had 500 elected officials attend events last year. What could 1,000 officials do? What ripple impact would that have?”