Archive for December 20, 2011

“Saving AmeriCorps” and Gap Year Volunteering

I recently saw that the House Budget for 2012 eliminates AmeriCorps.  The AmeriCorps Alumni posted this YouTube video arguing for the importance of saving it.

When I was writing the book, I was aware that some things would change, and tried to include web sites that I thought would be more “stable” and reliable, and less likely to be defunct in a year or two.  Somehow, I didn’t expect that I’d need to worry about AmeriCorps.  AmeriCorps is one of the largest domestic, government-sponsored volunteering programs that engages people for assignments of approximately a year.

[Excerpt from Giving Back]

The Peace Corps ( is the archetype of the life-changing volunteer program. Idealistic young college graduates (mostly, although other demographics can participate) take 27 months to work in another country, gaining experience with the culture and sharing their skills in teaching, agriculture, information technology, or health. The Americorps program ( was launched to provide a similar experience, but for those people who preferred to do their work domestically (and for 10-12 months). The success of these programs, especially as measured by the impact on the volunteers, is substantial. Many Peace Corps alumni speak of their experience as the most meaningful period of their whole lives. It is often a convenient time to make an extended commitment, before starting a family, buying a home, or even being deeply involved in working for an employer in their chosen field.

Many high school students are considering the “gap year” as well, choosing to defer college admissions for a year after their senior year in high school. They may be looking for a change of pace before launching into another four or more years of rigorous study, or perhaps they’re not entirely convinced that college is the right next step in their life journey. Increasingly, colleges are supporting the students’ decisions to take some time before matriculating, especially if they do something that will be meaningful in the long run, increasing the student’s maturity and perspective. If a student is prepared to commit to a full year of volunteering with a single assignment, there are organizations that can offer placements overseas, teaching English, helping with community development, or interning in a non-profit office.

Here are some Web sites offering advice for those intending to spend a full year at a volunteer project.

  • Volunteer Guide ( does a nice job of offering a selection of different organizations within each cause and approach.
  • Abroad Reviews ( offers reviews from past travelers. They have dozens of candid reviews for the most prominent organizations, some of which warn you away based on issues of safety, organization, or inflated cost.
  • The International Volunteer Programs Association ( is a portal site which allows you to search by region, country, cause and duration

There are also books appealing to specifically this group of young adults. See, for example:

The last book on this list points out that “gap years” aren’t exclusively for young adults: people changing careers, starting retirement, or taking a sabbatical could also make an extended commitment to volunteer before starting the next phase of their life.

The Power of Community

I ran across the HBS Research Brief “The New Measures for Improving Nonprofit Performance” and wasn’t terribly impressed by it.  It was a fairly generic interview with the founder and chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners Mario Morino (also author of Leap of Reason) and an HBS professor Alnoor Ebrahim.

Key points:

  • Non-profits don’t invest enough in capacity building, organization development
  • Strategy for non-profits is hard because lack of alignment of the stakeholders.  Donors, not beneficiaries are paying, so it can warp the direction set by the non-profit management away from things that really help.  (Incidentally, TED talk by Engineers without Borders’ David Damberger What Happens when NGOs Admit Failure (13 minute video) does a better job making this point.)
  • For profits have well-understood metrics, non-profits don’t.
  • It’s hard (though important) to separate the contribution of different organizations working to create change in the same set of interrelated issues.
  • Build a culture of transparency and results-orientation by leadership from the top, with values; even at the board level.
  • There should be a willingness to acknowledge and learn from failure (again, the TED talk does a better job of this…)

For me, the most compelling part of the whole interview was when the author asked Mario Morino why he was interested in the topic.  His response (italics mine):

My family was blue collar, but we were never poor. There’s a distinction between being in deep poverty and living in a low-income world. We had food and clothing. And the world was different in the 1950s. Even a tough neighborhood still had a social fabric to it. Today the social fabric is gone. The economic base for that income level has been almost fundamentally wiped out. And there’s a prevalence of guns and drugs. Those three things together create a deadly cycle for a community.

When I grew up I had all kinds of people encouraging me, helping me get through things. That’s what’s missing in communities today. In metrics, we don’t track the existence of caring relationships with adults in a student’s life. Yet it’s the biggest reason a kid succeeds in school. I’m trying to apply the analytical world to the passion of how do you help people, how do you make a difference in their lives.

Service Projects for Martin Luther King Jr. Day near Palo Alto

As you’re thinking about the holidays, don’t forget about one coming up early in 2012:  Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 16, 2012.  “Don’t make it a day off, make it day *on!*”

Need some ideas how you and your family can participate in a service project to honor Dr. King?  If you’re in the Bay Area, Oshman Jewish Community Center of Palo Alto has done a great job of pulling together lots of options:

  • Taking care of our earth and environment
    • Planting trees, restoring habitats, picking fruit, gardening
  • Confronting Hunger & Homelessness
    • Serve a meal in a shelter, sort at a food bank, pack bag lunches, make scarves, build a house
  • Supporting those with illness
    • Decorate, make joke books, serve desserts, make soup
  • Honoring our elders
    • Visit, make placemats or play bingo

See the full listings and then sign up your family!

They also ask that you bring a non-perishable food item for Second Harvest Food Bank.

If you don’t happen to be near Palo Alto, All for Good site has a special “MLKDay” category that lets you find opportunities near where you are.  (For me, it still included several things that weren’t strictly MLK Day focused…)

Impact of Proposed Tax Changes on Charitable Deductions

I’d heard a little about this back pre-Super Committee when Obama was offering the “Grand Bargain,” but hadn’t tracked it very closely, and assumed that it was a massive change (doing away with the deductability of charitable contributions) which probably wouldn’t happen.

Today, I ran across The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University’s analysis from October, and it appears that it’s a more targeted reduction (and not particular to charitable contributions).  As I was reading the first couple of pages I thought, “Wow, this is an interesting analysis, but it really needs an executive summary.”  And then I kept going and discovered that *was* the executive summary.

So here’s my attempt at summarizing:

Proposed Tax Changes

  • Top marginal rate to be restored from current 35% to previous 39.6%.
  • Deductions (of all types, not just charitable contributions) for high income households ($200K+ AGI individual, $250K+ married) to be capped at 28% vs. today’s 35%.


Rich people will give less, because (1) They’re paying more in taxes, so have less to give; and (2) The tax benefit they get from donations decreases.


Yes.  Charitable giving is expected to go down, something like $800M in the first year, and $2.4B in the second year.  This is off an expected baseline giving of $197B in the first year and $185B in the second year, so amounts to about 1.3%.  The amount of additional tax revenue expected by these changes is 2013 is $138B, at a time when the annual deficit is projected to be $691B.

See the report for more details about the model, the history, the impact if only one or the other of the proposed changes goes through, and lots more prose apparently written by accountants.

Personal Thoughts

Sure, it’s hard for non-profits to take an added hit when they are already struggling, and the demand for services is going up.  But if we’re talking about $138B in deficit reduction for a $2.4B loss in giving, I think it’s a worthwhile trade.  Note also that projected giving between the two years is projected to drop from $197B to $185B, and only $2.4B of that is due to the tax changes.  The other $9.6B (exactly 4x as much) is due, if I understand the model correctly, to the downward momentum of the economy.  So, working to improve the economy, say, by reducing the deficit, would actually be addressing the bigger issue.

Based on this report, I will be unpersuaded by non-profits that argue that these tax changes will be life-threatening to them.


Palo Alto Weekly section: The Importance of Teens Finding a Purpose

High school is a stressful time.  Schoolwork, family obligations, paid employment, extracurriculars, college applications–all are major demands on a student’s time. At the same time, teens are still wrestling with questions of identity and how they fit in with the social scene that emerges from their peer group.

Parents, wanting to be helpful, are often not sure how, and can end up making things worse.   The birth of new technologies, especially social media, mean that today’s students have a whole new realm to contend with.

In a place like Palo Alto, the culture of success runs deep.  Many parents have reached the pinnacle of performance in their selected fields:  CEO’s, venture capitalists, serial entrepreneurs, partners of prestigious law firms or ad agencies, executive directors of non-profits.  They want their children to live well, and too often that implies “live well off.”  Material success is a common goal, but even where parents agree that their children should have the freedom to choose a lower-paying, less prestigious career track, they aim to give their child a “full range of options” by having him or her go to the very best schools, resulting in major pressure to garner admission to Stanford or an Ivy League school.

And so begins the “treadmill”:  expectations (both parental- and self-) of academic success; excellence in sports, music, school newspaper or other “meaty” after school activity; volunteering or paid employment; and a range of support services to help prepare for standardized tests and college applications.

This combination has been literally fatal to too many students in the Palo Alto high schools.  The community has reflected and responded.  Improvements have been made.  Support services are stronger.

The cover story/section of the November 18, 2011 Palo Alto Weekly was an excellent multi-faceted review of different programs and experiences of people, both students and those who support them.

There is an interesting sidebar why college is less stressful than high school (more flexibility in choosing classes, more interesting material (professors that  probe “why?”), extracurriculars run by students–without as much “resume building” pressure, instructors that treat their students in a more egalitarian way, and just fewer hours of instruction and activity, less competition, and getting away from “pushy parents”).

But the main point of the story is about…


“People don’t worry about the right things,” [William Damon, Professor from Stanford School of Education, author of the book The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life] said. “The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness.”

Working hard for something they didn’t choose themselves, and don’t believe in, is counterproductive to longterm health and fulfillment. It is simply not sustainable.
A purposeful life, by contrast, can unleash tremendous
energy, creativity, exhilaration and a deep satisfaction
with efforts and accomplishments, according to Damon.
Based on hundreds of surveys and in-depth interviews
with adolescents nationwide, Damon has found that the
vast majority of today’s youth (about 80 percent) are not
engaged in activities fueled by a clear sense of purpose.

Community service was an avenue through which several of the students found their purpose.  Youth Community Service (Disclaimer:  I’m a huge fan) and Executive Director Leif Erickson (Disclaimer applies here, too…) were featured for their work in service learning programs in the schools.  The stories of the students were inspiring.

I’m tempted to quote more and more of the article, but I’ll limit myself to urging you to read the original, and quoting one final sidebar:

How Purpose Begins

The following sequence outlines steps in a path to purpose
for youth, according to researchers’ findings.

  1. Inspiring communication with persons outside the immediate family
  2. Observation of purposeful people at work
  3. First moment of revelation:  Something important in the world can be corrected or improved
  4. Second moment of revelation:  I can contribute something myself and make a difference
  5. Identification of purpose, along with initial attempts to accomplish something
  6. Support from immediate family
  7. Expanded efforts to pursue one’s purpose in original and consequential ways
  8. Acquiring the skills needed for this pursuit
  9. Increased practical effectiveness
  10. Enhanced optimism and self-confidence
  11. Long term commitment to the purpose
  12. Transfer of skills and character strengths gained in pursuit of one purpose to other areas of life

Source: “The Path to Purpose: How
Young People Find Their Calling in Life”
by William Damon

It was interesting to me that people *outside* the family were instrumental in the initial stages of defining a purpose.  Also made me wonder how I, personally, can do a better job of giving teens that glimmer of possibility.


Book Status Update

Just a quick note that I’ve reached the next stage in the writing process:  sent off a complete draft to an editor.  (To several, actually.  But I’m very excited about one…)  It’s made me think that editors are unsung heroes–like batting coaches.  The good ones have a huge hand in the final product, but aside from a small mention in the acknowledgments, basically get no public credit for the work they do.

While it looks like I *could* maintain the original time line, with a “Fall 2011” publication (which would give me to December 21st, I guess), it looks like I’ll add another step into my process and have a professional designer work magic on it.  I’m not sure exactly how long that will take, but I’m near certain that it’ll be 2012 before you’ll find it on Amazon.