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Volunteerism Off Peak Since Sept. 11 Terror Attack

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Volunteerism Off Peak Since Sept. 11 Terror Attack

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Volunteerism Off Peak Since Sept. 11 Terror Attack

Volunteerism Off Peak Since Sept. 11 Terror Attack

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Interest in federal volunteer programs such as AmeriCorps spiked and then tapered after the September 11th terrorist attacks. But David Eisner, head of the agency that oversees the federal volunteer programs, says there is no intent on federalizing volunteering. Eisner spoke with John Ydstie.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This week we're having a series of conversations about sacrifice and service at this stage of the war in Iraq.

After the September 11 attacks in his State of the Union speech, President Bush spoke famously about forces of evil but also said something less remembered about forces for good.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: None of us would ever wish the evil that was done on September the 11th, yet after America was attacked it was as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves.

We're reminded that we are citizens with obligations to each other, to our country and to history. We began to think less of the goods we can accumulate and more about the good we can do.

YDSTIE: The president called upon all Americans to give at least two years to national service. One of the programs he talked about was AmeriCorps, a kind of domestic Peace Corps.

It trains federal volunteers and sends them across the country to work with non-profits like Habitat for Humanity and Teach for America. The man who oversees this and other federal volunteer programs is David Eisner. After 9/11, he says more Americans signed up for all types of volunteer work.

Mr. DAVID EISNER (Chief Executive Officer, Corporation for National and Community Service): And across America, volunteering is still at near 30-year highs. We are seeing a slight drop off from the absolute highs that we hit between 2003 and 2004.

YDSTIE: Have you seen domestic volunteering fall off as support for the war has declined? Is there any sense that you feel where people are sort of disenchanted with the government and its programs because they're disenchanted with the war?

Mr. EISNER: On the one hand, some of our research shows that actually as people feel less connected to government institutions, there are actually more inclined - not less - to volunteer because they find that there is an outlet for their sense of civic responsibility and they can make a difference.

Some people would criticize that, that people that feel unable, for example, to solve poverty as a policy level will then work in soup kitchens where they can do it on an individual level.

YDSTIE: If you could double your budget right now, what would you spend your money on?

Mr. EISNER: The biggest challenge that American non-profits face is they're losing a third of the Americans who volunteer with them year over year are not volunteering the next year.

YDSTIE: So you have a very large attrition rate?

Mr. EISNER: We have a leaky bucket, and that means helping our volunteer organizations, the non profits, do a better job of being professionally managed. Because today when volunteers go into a non-profit organization, they're not willing to say, oh, it's only a charity. I'm willing to let it be inefficient. They expect their time to be well respected.

YDSTIE: At what point, if any, would you make the push for mandatory national service? Not a draft necessarily but a system where able-bodied Americans would be required to give a year or two of their lives to some volunteer program in America.

Mr. EISNER: It's a really interesting question. That's a question that's being asked a lot. As the person that runs our existing national service programs, I can say that these programs are not ready for it.

The last thing we want to be doing is federalizing volunteering, so we have no intent on making every American volunteer part of a federal program. Americans, at their gut level, love freedom, love independence and hate being told what they have to do.

YDSTIE: You know, I think if you look back at World War II, you could honestly say that volunteering was federalized. You don't think that applies these days?

Mr. EISNER: Well, I think you could have an interesting debate about what counts as federalized. There's a real magic that happens when, in one of our programs, we bring idealistic young people into a community to face a problem.

But the chemistry that happens there is because of the determination. And it's hard to imagine how'd you have that chemistry where people didn't want to be there. What would happen in a Teach for America program where you had teachers that really didn't want to serve?

YDSTIE: And were doing it because they had do.

Mr. EISNER: Exactly. I think of America in which youth graduate from college and ask each other where did you do your service. It's a really powerful vision. But I think it only works in a world where that service is voluntary.

YDSTIE: David Eisner is the CEO of the federal government's Corporation for National and Community Service. Thanks very much.

Mr. EISNER: Thank you.

YDSTIE: Tomorrow we'll continue our series on service with a report on one military family.

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