If You Give Me More Helping Hands, Give Me More Cash

The idea of mandatory national service gets bandied about a lot, especially during presidential election years. This year it seemed to pop up more frequently due to the proposals for free college tuition being floated by some of the candidates. People were suggesting at the very least those who received free tuition needed to reciprocate in some fashion such as national service in the military, Peace Corps, Americorps, etc.

Last week a discussion held by a local public radio station on the pros and cons of mandatory service came across my social media feed. The host and his guests made a lot of good points about the cons, not the least of which is that people are supportive of the idea for younger people, but when you suggest a mandatory service of even one hour a month for all citizens, there is fierce resistance.

Most of the negative outcomes they mentioned were from the point of view of those who would be providing service. Something they overlooked was the fact that there is expense involved in administering a service program, regardless of whether the participants are being paid or not. This is true whether the service is military or civil. I am going to mostly address it from the civil side, but the basic factors are almost identical. This issue is overlooked pretty much everywhere I could find a national service discussion online.

Supervisory infrastructure, materials, equipment, space, facilities and dozens of other details are necessary if there are any expectations of a meaningful experience with meaningful outcomes from a mandatory service experience.

Mandatory service on a national or even state level can be a boon to the work that non-profits and other service organizations do, but it will require a significant increase in capacity building funding from some combination of governments and foundations. Otherwise having service workers becomes more of a hindrance than a help to an organization.

This issue needs to be raised a lot more emphatically when these ideas are discussed. Otherwise, people will be looking askance at the non-profit sector wondering how it could be screwing things up so badly when they were being provided with the service of 3 million high school graduates every year.

I think it is too easy to equate added labor with industrial productivity and revenue generation and see mandatory service as a boon to organizational sustainability. But very little work non-profit organizations do generates revenue. Being able to teach more children will require more space and instructional supplies. Being able to feed more homeless or elderly will require more food, vehicles and food preparation equipment. Being able to provide health services to people will require more space, medicine, diagnostic equipment.

More capacity to do these things means more money than ever will be spent. Unfortunately, the organizations’ capacity to generate the money to cover these costs probably won’t increase a whit.

The only area in which I could see any sort of return on investment would be in terms of the old WPA type infrastructure projects. If you have people planting trees that can be harvested decades down the road, clearing/creating parks that can be used to generate revenue or gentrify an area to increase the tax base, then you might tie a tangible result to the service. However, a lot of the needed services have intangible results.

So yes, ultimately the nation would be more unified and healthier for having a stronger ethic of service. But getting there ain’t free.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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