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Serve America Act changes should help attract older volunteers

The new Serve America Act has dropped time limits for AmeriCorps volunteering, allows seniors to earn education credits that they can donate to children or grandchildren and in other ways seeks to recruit older Americans.

Richard Bergeron of north Minneapolis, 68, recently completed two years of AmeriCorps service with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and a year of VISTA service with Minneapolis Public Schools.

He’d like to continue doing AmeriCorps work, but the program has time limits and he maxed out. He enjoys working with young people and contributing to the community. And he needs a small bump to his retirement income so that he and his wife can pay their bills.

So Bergeron was excited to learn this week that that the new Serve America Act changed the rules, dumping the time limits. It was one of several program changes that could help recruit older volunteers. Bergeron was one several hundred people to attend the 2nd Annual Forum on Boomers and Civic Engagement, held Tuesday at Century College in White Bear Lake, to talk about volunteering and service.

Lester Strong, chief executive officer of Experience Corps, gave the keynote address. (Experience Corps is a national program that taps people 55 and older to meet community needs. In the Twin Cities, Experience Corps members do literacy tutoring for children kindergarten to grade 3.) Strong said under the new Serve America Act, the number of AmeriCorps positions would increase from today’s 75,000 to 250,000 by 2017.

Bachmann’s comments got the attention
This is not new news. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann recently sent up alarm flares about the program, saying that AmeriCorps is a form of politically correct re-education camp for America’s youth. That got a lot of attention. Less well covered are the changes made to attract the aging baby boomers.

In addition to eliminating AmeriCorps’ two-year time limit, the Serve America Act designates 10 percent of the increased slots for older Americans; creates a new option allowing older AmeriCorps volunteers to give their education credit to children and grandchildren; and creates an Encore Fellowships program to provide people 55+ one-year management or leadership positions that will prepare them for jobs in the nonprofit sector. You can learn more about that here.

However, while Congress authorized the changes, it hasn’t approved the money. Bergeron might have to wait a funding cycle before he can sign up again. “I’ll have to find something [else],” he said. “That was wonderful news for me today, because I can say a year from now I can join another AmeriCorps or VISTA and be in a very nice situation again.”

The Vital Aging Network, Century College and the InVisible Force Collaborative sponsored the event. For a recap of the 2008 conference, go here.

Rethinking the boomer volunteer

In his address, Strong said Minnesota was a leader in volunteer-building efforts and reflected on a Monday conversation with Jim Scheibel, former St. Paul mayor and former director of AmeriCorps VISTA during the Clinton administration.

“One of the things [Scheibel] suggested and I really strongly agree with is that perhaps there needs to be a national coalition focused exclusively on how we engage older adults in this new trend of national and community service,” Strong said. “It is the kind of focus and attention that I think would serve the country very, very well.”

Lee George, volunteer manager at the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota, also spoke, outlining changes he said would make nonprofit organizations more inviting for volunteers. They include moving from nonprofit-driven volunteer opportunities to volunteerism that is shaped by the volunteers’ own passions and objectives.

Details coming this fall
Sam Schuth, state program director for the Minnesota State Office of the Corporation for National & Community Service, said his office gets several calls a day asking for more details on the new Serve America Act. “Some of the details are fuzzy,’ he said in an interview. “Questions will be resolved around October.”

Could the AmeriCorps expansion help struggling nonprofits? Schuth says it’s no panacea. Although 250,000 Americorps workers might seem like a lot, they will be spread across the country and across many nonprofits.

“I think they [nonprofits] would be more prudent to take action on any new initiatives they might be having rather than waiting for these AmeriCorps members,” Schuth said.

Small nonprofits: Don’t forget your post cards
On an unrelated note, the Internal Revenue Service reminds small nonprofits the deadline to file your annual electronic informational return is May 15. (It is also known as the Form 990-N or e-Postcard.) Tax-exempt organizations with gross annual receipts of $25,000 or less — or approximately 14,000 Minnesota nonprofits — need to file.

The May 15 deadline applies to all small organizations whose tax year ends on Dec. 31. (Organizations whose tax year is different from the calendar year must file the e-Postcard by the 15th day of the 5th month after the close of their tax year.)

Small organizations tend to change leadership rather frequently, so it is important to remind everyone of this filing requirement, the IRS said in a news release.