What not to do Americorps

October 5, 2015. Article by Erica Wood.

There are many things that one can do to ensure a wonderful year of service. Many “to-dos” and suggestions come your way once you commit to AmeriCorps.

But rarely does one tell you what to avoid; what has been tried (most likely by accident) and proven unhelpful, or worse. I’m here to provide you with some insight into four particular mindsets that will ensure you (won’t) succeed. Here’s how to ensure a dull year of service, by yours truly, as I finish my year with AmeriCorps.

I’ve spent the past year on an adventure with VT Engage AmeriCorps network. I began my full-time service at the inception of the department’s grant, which funds a group of 21 partial and full time members serving in diverse capacities within two different local non-profit organizations.

You’ve heard of our first community partner: the American Red Cross. Members serve as disaster outreach advocates and respond to crises as they emerge. Lucky for our community, there weren’t many home fires this year, which caused members to focus their energies on education and prevention efforts.

The second organization, Smart Beginnings NRV, is a coalition of community members working to support quality early childhood development in the New River Valley. Our members facilitate reading mentorship programs in childcare centers throughout the area.

So where do I fit in? I work at the VT Engage office, under the network coordinators, the wonderful Lindsey Gleason and Gary Kirk. If you looked up my job description, it would say “College and University Liaison”.

However, my role transformed…a lot…from the day I started to when I finished. From my experiences, I’ve boiled down my advice below. Listen, and listen well:

Lesson #1. (don’t) Forget your motivation.

My motivation to join AmeriCorps was two-fold. Primarily, I wanted to do something meaningful for my community. After attending Virginia Tech and being eagerly molded into a student of Ut Prosim, I felt serving in some capacity was a calling that I could not idly ignore.

Peace Corps was an option, but didn’t seem right considering my circumstances at the time. I wanted to stay in Blacksburg, and I discovered AmeriCorps after looking at all of my options. Until then, I had no idea that a new service network was emerging on the campus only ten minutes away.

I knew it was the right fit when the job description detailed things that I had done to a T in my collegiate career. In my ‘gap’ year I would be able to share my skills and knowledge while working with organizations I already highly valued.

If you forget your motivation, why you signed up in the first place, small obstacles can become major roadblocks. You’re not making a lot of money, you’re busy with other  opportunities, and your time is valuable.

Sometimes, despite doing everything ‘right’ you’ll have recruitment dry spells. Sometimes no one will show up to an event that you spent weeks planning. But if you’re going to get through a year of service, you have to just remember that it’s not about you.

If you forget that you’re here to make a difference, at the sacrifice of your time and bank account, these ailments can break you down. Self-care is important, which brings me to #2.

Lesson #2: (don’t) Forget to reflect.

If you fail to reflect, you will fail to truly recognize what’s going on in your service term. Why are you succeeding? Why are you slipping up? Don’t you want to know these things so that you can harness them in the future?

Reflection is empowering because it leads you to answers. You can then articulate your needs and expectations and whether or not your service term is meeting these things. You can examine your own performance and assess yourself.

Are you truly meeting the needs of your community? If not, what can you do to realign yourself with your initial goals? And, you can learn what the needs of a community really are. What is contributing to these? How can you help? How can you spread awareness?

Reflection is a key tool to service. Since our work is constantly evolving, you must be too.

Lesson #3: (don’t) Expect projects to fall in your lap.

During my interview, I was asked “how I am with ambiguity”. I thought, after years of examining my Gallup strengths, and knowing that I am an “activator” before anything else, ambiguity was fine! I could certainly get things done without firm direction.

However, when I began my term with I didn’t get much training in volunteer management or recruitment, and not a ton of direction on where to start. This is where things get tricky. As AmeriCorps members, we are here to build capacity, but you need tools to start that work!

Draw from the talents and contacts of your surrounding staff to help build what already exists. In any world, managers are busy. In the non-profit/service oriented world, managers are beyond busy. Budgets and staff are small, while goals and to-do lists are never ending.

The field is in constant flux since the people and places you serve change on a daily basis. Add a college campus into the mix, and there is little time to develop someone to help you. Don’t get me wrong: your supervisors are here to help, and certainly want to! But sometimes you have to think outside of the box.

From my perspective, the most useful service I could provide was to support the network through the first year in whatever ways the grant structure would allow. Observing what challenges appeared in the office, and trying to assist when needed. This included asking to take on the National Days of Service, which has evolved into not one, but two, official job descriptions for the incoming cohort of members.

Lesson #4: (don’t) Isolate yourself.

Someone once told me that recruitment was as much about selling yourself as it was selling the organization and the role. This means making an honest effort to build relationships in your office, your cohort, and your community.

Sometimes people are motivated to do things like volunteer for an organization because they believe in you. So, you must ignite their enthusiasm. A lot of pressure, I know, but I’ve learned when you are authentic, people respond to you.

Although there are policies and rules set in place, and plenty of genuine need in the community, sometimes the motivation that people need is simple encouragement from a friend. For people who are all about business, results driven, and strict utilitarian, it can be difficult to slow down and remember this.

I’ve had a great year in AmeriCorps. My philosophy of meaningful service has deepened, as has my understanding of community development. I’ve learned a lot about professionalism, best practices in the ‘real world’, volunteer recruitment, non-profit essentials, and relationship building.

Now that I know what not to do, I would certainly sign-on for another role wherever I go next. All I can hope for is that I’ve positively contributed to the great work the VT Engage and AmeriCorps do.