With the emergence of personal responsibility as a major political theme since the mid-1990s, embodied in 1996's welfare reform law and, then, many funding decisions of the second Bush Administration, came the increased reliance on community services and the involvement of charitable organizations. Many in the political world even insisted that community groups and charities must pick up the slack that is caused by the diminished Federal presence.
Whether one agrees with this trend or not, since it has occurred, it is incumbent upon the Federal government to at least facilitate the greater role of community groups and charities. To do otherwise would be tantamount to the Federal government closing down some of its military bases and telling the affected communities to fend for themselves. --- Whoops! Hold it. The Feds have been doing that. Guess that doesn't bode well for the charities.
Ideas / Solutions
Federal support can be provided without resorting to very costly options, such as offering grants or loans to charities and non-profit service organizations. The Federal government can adopt some low cost methods of making it easier to help charities, such as those that help welfare recipients and other lower-income persons in need of housing, employment services, and other vital assistance.
The first initiative would be to encourage government contractors to hire qualified graduates from governmental education programs, including vocational education training programs, to apply the graduates' skills to the work commissioned by these contracts. This would increase incentives to people to enroll in these educational programs, advance their careers and standard of living, and become tax payers rather than recipients of taxpayer-funded assistance, by adding this tangible result to their efforts. Contractors could be rewarded for such hires -- rather than required to do so -- by reflecting such hires in the contractor's bid scoring with additional points according to the number of hires, as they compete for the contract.
Second, Federal employees could be encouraged to volunteer their time to charitable organizations by creating some mild, yet highly-visible incentives. For example, employees who give at least ten hours per month to a charitable group (as certified by a letter from that group) might be allowed to park in a preferred parking area, closer to the work site, or be given access to an area of the cafeteria with upgraded tables and chairs. Although it might not be practical to reward an employee with a day off in appreciation for outstanding service to charity, it should be acceptable for occasional flex time of two or three hours off, if the employee requests it to commence a four- to six-hour shift at a charity.
Third, three interactive websites (or three divisions of the same website portal) should be crafted to facilitate access to governmental goods and services, and leverage the power of the government to coordinate relief. The objective would be to help connect people and groups who want to help others. Federal, State, and local governments should develop them through coordinated efforts. Each should be supported by databases that are not restricted by state or local geography, and be as user-friendly as websites like Craig's List or EBay.
By having the government, rather than the private sector, coordinate and develop these websites, they will encourage the listing of government surplus goods and services, as well, and consolidate those with private sector offerings. It would be a "one-stop shopping" community service solution that would be tailored to helping community and charitable organizations satisfy their needs, regardless of the source of the goods or services being donated.
One website would be for all types of goods, with a subdivision that lists those who have something to offer and a subdivision that lists those who are in need of particular items. The goods that are offered could include the full range of items that are regularly deemed by government agencies to be surplus property. The website would also hurdle some of the Federal government's myriad rules and regulations for receiving surplus Federal property. Goods may still have to first be made available to other Federal offices and agencies, and then to State and local governments. But then, it could be easier for charitable groups to access this property. Through the website, items could even be made available to needy individuals, who traditionally have no way to navigate the bureaucracy to access property. For example, with surplus office equipment – perhaps even that which is outdated by the standards of today’s fast-evolving technology – there are many aspiring small businesspersons who could benefit. The disappointing stories of replaced three-year-old laptops being unclaimed and unused, simply because their availability was unknown to those who could benefit from them, could be put to an end.
Corporations and other entities often have surplus property, too. In some instances this property is channeled to people in need, especially through local efforts. But that is not often enough the case. While the Federal government’s system of distribution suffers from too much bureaucracy, the private sector often does not know where to turn to find recipients beyond their immediate community.....or does not want to navigate the labyrinth to figure it out. State or local chambers of commerce could encourage their members to list the goods that they are willing to donate. E.g., a clothing store may offer its discontinued clothing lines to religious groups that provide assistance to the welfare population.
Among the advantages of this national process is that specialized property could be made available to recipients who are located in areas that might not otherwise know of its availability. For example, if school buses are replaced in one state, the outdated buses might best be put to use by schools (or a day camp, or a youth center) in another state or region. Also, an impoverished family might be able to use a library computer to locate a used refrigerator or stove that had been replaced by a company in the renovation of their corporate staff lunchroom, whether or not that company is in their immediate community.
The second website would index services in much the same way as the first website indexes goods. One subdivision would list people who are willing to donate their services, professional or otherwise, to charitable organizations, while another subdivision would list the organizations that are in need of particular services. For example, a charity could find a social worker or an accountant who is willing to offer their services gratuitously for five hours a week, perhaps even if there are thousands of miles between the accountant and the charity. With broadband technology, there is no need for a volunteer service provider to be physically present. Similarly, a company would find it easier to donate some time of its staff on a pro-bono basis by identifying needs over this website. Again, state and local chambers of commerce could encourage its members to participate.
The third website would serve as a clearinghouse directed toward the labor market, containing a subdivision that lists paid community service-related job and volunteer opportunities, as well as job placement agencies that know of similar ones. Another subdivision of this database would contain listings of individuals who are able to volunteer or work in community service, and the abilities and technical skills that they offer. Use of governmental resources in this effort will provide many more opportunities and connections than the existing websites which are run by local private or non-profit organizations, as it would be able to include the full scope of opportunities that are channeled through government offices. Many people who are willing to volunteer often do not know where to go or who needs their services, and this website would provide easy answers. For welfare recipients, for example, who are willing and able to do community service work for pay, they too often have difficulty finding appropriate opportunities. Although they often do not have their own computers with Internet access, they can get access through community technology centers and public-sector and non-profit organizations with which they interact.
To be of maximal value, the websites need to be national in scope, rather than the localized versions that just cater to specific communities which serve some localities today. In this respect, these web services would be analogous and complementary to the exemplary initiatives of websites such as DonorsChoose.org, MeansForDreams.org, AdoptAClassroom.com, and others through which individuals can donate money for specific benefits in specific places nationwide and even globally. But the focus on government-related goods, services, and community opportunities would provide a distinct advantage over privately-operated sites.
Goods can be easily shipped across country if necessary. Services can often be provided across great distances with the help of telecommunication technologies. Many people are willing to relocate for an appealing job or career opportunity. With nationwide listings, the pool of useful information would be greatly expanded for all parties affected. It comes down to providing a cheap and easy way to help people and groups who need the help. Because of the Federal government’s transition away from providing many community-based services, it has the responsibility to take a proactive role in filling this gap. There is no excuse not to do so when considering that it is cost-effective, as well.
Given a quick way to help others, many will rise to the occasion.