Almost everyone living in Chicago wants to make it a better place to live and many would be willing to roll up their sleeves to help. Most don’t have the time, privilege, or opportunity to do so. Let’s change that by creating a Chicago Service Corps that treats volunteers as the valuable resource they are. How might we do such a thing? It doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated, but like a three-legged stool, it would need legs to stand on. A city-wide volunteer platform, non-cash rewards for volunteers, and meaningful and ongoing civic projects.
A city-wide volunteer platform would enable volunteers (and aspiring volunteers) to keep track of their volunteer hours, projects they’ve worked on, skills they’ve developed, training completed, recommendations from other volunteers, and new training and service opportunities. It would also enable administrators to have safeguards, such as background checks, for certain volunteer roles. It would also enable the certification of hours in order to receive, redeem, and transfer their Civic Credits.
Transferable non-cash rewards for volunteering could provide a type of incentive that balances both the spirit of volunteering and the value of volunteers’ time. Too many volunteer opportunities are based on having privilege in employment, personal resources, or living near volunteer opportunities. It’s important that rewards aren’t structured in a transactional way that resembles employment, i.e., 1 hour of volunteering = 1 credit. Instead they could be structured so that completing a certain minimum number of hours would enable a volunteer to choose from different types of benefits. For example, after twenty hours of service a volunteer might choose to redeem their credits for a 1 month pass on CTA. Or they might choose to save up their credits, from say 100 hours, to redeem them for a 20% tuition discount at a state school or community college.
Meaningful and ongoing service opportunities are important to creating a sense of mission among volunteers and building social connection to fellow volunteers. Too many volunteer opportunities are one-off feel-good projects, i.e., painting a school or cleaning a park, that offer little lasting benefit to volunteers or the community they are serving in. Projects that improve the quality of life and our collective resilience take time and training. For example, volunteer transit ambassadors would need training on a variety of things, but there would be an ongoing need for them throughout the system. Likewise, having volunteers that are able to open and close neighborhood schools for evening community use would require training and could yield more social capital and safe, healthy activities for the community.
To ensure the sustainability of the three-part system, governance and policy would be handled by a stakeholder council of volunteers with coordinating support from a city or nonprofit staff person.