The AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) in their own words “is the national service program designed specifically to fight poverty”. New college graduates or people who are at least eighteen years old with a few years of work experience commit to one year of full time service to a non-profit working in areas such as fighting illiteracy, improving health services, creating businesses, strengthening community groups, and much more. On the surface, this sounds like a great idea. Human service organizations get additional help, and young people get real world work experience while helping others and earning a small living stipend. However, there is a huge problem with that thinking.  Let me ask you something.

Would you put an inexperienced twenty-one year old recent college grad into a job intended for a Masters level professional? That is what many human service non-profits are doing in this economy. Many organizations who help at risk populations such as the poor or disabled are finding large financial incentives to do just that. They take in volunteers from programs like AmeriCorps and City Year, but many of them do not have full time work that a brand new B.A. could do. So they are turning positions which would normally be offered to a new Master of Social Work specializing in program management or a Master of Public Administration into volunteer spots. Non-Profits can pay these volunteers a stipend between $11,000 and $14,000 a year as opposed to the $40,000 to $50,000 plus benefits, which a new master’s level professional would demand, so you really cannot blame them. They are trying to make the most out of the resources available, and the young volunteers get a great experience to further their career. So what can be wrong with that? Well as these programs are set-up now, there are three parties being hurt to varying degrees.

The non-profits themselves are losing stability, continuity of service, and the ability to innovate with changing times. Organizations that would normally have professionals working for them for three to seven years, perhaps more, are dealing with yearly or bi-yearly turnover. Every year they have to retrain and help a new person gear up to being able to do the job. They do not have stable line staff that can try new things and innovate, because that staff does not have the experience to know what works and what does not. They lose the ability to evaluate and review the impact of their services over time because of changing personalities and skill levels of volunteers. So these non-profits are stuck giving the same basic training to volunteers and providing the same basic services every year, and things stagnate.

Clients of these non-profits are receiving lower quality services. Have you ever gone into a fast food restaurant when they are training the new kid? Everything runs slowly. Mistakes are unavoidable. The supervisor ends up being consulted every other customer. Imagine those same issues when you are trying to work with a career-counseling center or trying to have someone help you with your child’s special education issues. A newly minted MSW may not be the best at what they do, but it is guaranteed that they at least know enough to make a judgment call and really help you out. A twenty-one year old right out of college in a volunteer position like that is going to know to do only what they have been told to do. That is fine if your job is to push the picture of the cheeseburger, but that thinking breaks down when dealing with complex situations where you have to deal with the personality of a person while they are under stress and at the same time helping them come up with a solution to the facts of a problem.

New postgraduate professionals are losing job prospects. If you look at the nonprofit job section of Craigslist, you will currently find that the vast majority of the jobs posted are VISTA service opportunities or an equivalent, clinical per diem (pay per client counseling) jobs or are upper management spots. For those newly graduated Masters level professionals whose training is in human service program management, program design & evaluation, grants management, and advocacy, there are very few first jobs available right now. Those positions that would normally begin a career are turning into volunteer spots. I recently spoke with a young woman doing her second year Master’s internship. Her internship was originally going to be working on curriculum design for an after school program that works with children in special education. Her responsibilities were shifted to different responsibilities when she arrived because a twenty-one year old girl from a small town in the mid-west with no experience in that work was given the job. Part of this job description is supposed to be attending IEP (Individual Education Plan) meetings for some of the children in the program. The woman I spoke to ended up having to go to these meetings anyway because the volunteer in the position did not could not, have gained the knowledge needed to be involved in those meetings with the training she was given.

That is the hidden problem with AmeriCorps VISTA and other year of service volunteer programs. When applied to the proper job opportunities, they are an effective way of increasing the power of human services. However, the programs need to be reviewed to make sure that they are not placing volunteers into jobs they are not prepared for and harming the organizations accepting the placement, the clients of those organizations, and the professionals who should be preforming those duties for everyone’s benefit.