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Overseeing America’s community service

(Courtesy of the Corporation for National and Community Service)

Wendy Spencer is the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that administers AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, Social Innovation Fund and other programs that engage more than 5 million Americans in service and volunteering. Spencer, who has held positions in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, spoke about her goals and challenges with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What type of culture are you trying to foster at the Corporation for National and Community Service?

A.  The culture I’m trying to encourage is to be compassionate. You really need to care about service, and you need to have a passion for it because you can’t fake that. You either have to care about people or get out of the way. This is consuming every day for us.

Q. What do you hope to achieve during your tenure?

A. I came up with this strategy called EDGE. E is expanding economic opportunities for individuals and families, and finding a pathway for Americans to thrive. D is for driving innovation and impact. G is for growing national service and volunteerism, and E is explaining why service matters. These are my goals and priorities.

Q. What are some internal challenges that you are facing?

A. We literally have hundreds of thousands of people who show an interest, either through an application or an inquiry, to become an AmeriCorps or a Senior Corps volunteer. But we have only a finite amount of slots and we have waiting lists in each of these areas. My goal is to cut down that waiting list and find ways for everyone who wants to serve. They might not be able to do it through a year-long program, but maybe they can do it through our special days of service like Martin Luther King Day of Service, or 9/11 Day of Service, or maybe they can serve alongside an AmeriCorps member.

Q.  What is the primary national issue you are focused on now?

A. Fifty percent of our budget goes toward education across the country. That’s an area where we are really making some traction. We have either a Senior Corps volunteer or an AmeriCorps member in one out of every 11 schools across America — that means close to 12,000 schools have one of our members or volunteers. We did a deeper dive and found out that one out of four of those schools are persistently low achieving. This is telling us that we are in the right places. I really feel that we are helping with the graduation rates, we are helping students succeed in the classroom, and we are helping students be encouraged to attend school because of our dynamic and energetic national service presence.

Q. What motivates people to serve in AmeriCorps?

A. I’ve met thousands of AmeriCorps members, and I often ask them why they chose to do so. Many of them are really drawn to making change, many of them are experimenting and are trying to find out if they are well suited to be in the education field, or to work in a nonprofit or to support veterans. They are trying to find themselves through national service. In recent years, we have many AmeriCorps members who are in their forties and even their fifties who have lost their jobs and have turned to national service to change their career. They were using national service as a way to test it, but also as a way to give back. And I’m okay with that because we get their time and talents.

Q. What leadership lessons have you learned over time?

A.  I may have been more judgmental at one point and taken the word of management on personnel issues. Yet I have really come to the realization that the truth to any human resources issue is somewhere in the middle. You need to go into the conversation or the problem that you are about to address with the attitude that both sides probably are right to some degree. You have to provide a solution to the problem.

Q. What has been one of the biggest surprises since coming to the job?

A. If private-sector managers observed — from a bird’s eye view — public-sector employees, they would see and extraordinary level of compassion and commitment to making a real impact.

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