With Power Comes Great Responsibility: The Privatization of Government, Service, and Equity

As a home for nonprofits, foundations, and corporate allies engaged in every kind of charitable endeavor, Independent Sector is proud to advance the work of volunteers across the country. In the interest of further advancing the national dialogue on volunteerism and national service, we present this blog series, Reimagining Volunteerism & Service, to dig deeper and explore different policy solutions in 2020 and beyond. This month, Jeremie Greer, co-founder and co-executive director of Liberation in a Generation and Independent Sector Policy Fellow, discusses how nonprofits should center equity and inclusion in their volunteer and service programs.

I carry a lot of titles. Husband, father, policy wonk, and racial and economic justice activist. But the title that gives me an incredible amount of joy and fulfillment is coach. For the last 10 years, I’ve been a volunteer football coach and commissioner for Alexandria Titans Youth Football in Alexandria, VA (yes, we are the youth affiliate of the high school team on which the movie Remember the Titans is based). When I began volunteering with the Titans the program was run by the city of Alexandria’s Department of Parks and Recreation. However, about three years ago, consistent with other sports it operated, city leadership chose to transition the Titans program from a “city-run” to a “volunteer-run” program. In effect, they placed what was a core government service, the provision of youth sports, in the hands of community volunteers.

This blog is not meant to criticize privatization. I will leave that critique for another day. Here, I challenge the service sector to do more to ensure racial, gender, and income equity for its volunteers and participants. Many of us in the sector have the monumental responsibility of providing what were once democratically accountable government services, and we must do so in a way that centers equity.

The trend of privatizing government services has been happening since the 1980s and has grown substantially over time. Core government services such as prison operation, utilities, railroad operation, and education have been turned over by the government to the private sector. Youth sports, which was largely within the purview of local departments of parks and recreation, has become a billion dollar industry, and almost entirely run by volunteers. Coinciding with the privatization of government services was the growth of volunteer and service organizations like City Year (1988), Teach for America (1989), and Points of Light (1990). These national organizations and thousands of community level block clubs, parent-teacher associations, and small local nonprofit organizations filled the void left by privatization in a host of critical services, including education, health and safety, economic development, recreation, and many others.

My experience in youth sports has provided me with interesting insights into the challenges that, if mitigated, could more fully promote equity. Below are a couple of those observations.

Privatization should not be used by those in the service sector to exclude.

In his widely acclaimed book, Dream Hoarders, Richard Reeves describes how “opportunity hoarding” has facilitated the upper-middle class’ exclusion of low-income and people of color from opportunity (such as select schooling, elite internships, and exclusive entry-level jobs). This exclusion has unfortunately infected youth sports. Hope Solo, an Olympic and World Cup Champion soccer player, famously identified the cost of participation, which can be as much as $5,500 per year, as the reason for the underrepresentation of Latinx and Black youth soccer players. This trend cuts across all youth sports. In a recent study, the Aspen Institute found that only 34% of children from families earning less than $25,000 a year played a team sport at least one day in 2017, versus 69% from homes earning more than $100,000. If equity is a guiding goal of the service sector, it is our responsibility to ensure that these critical services are not being hoarded by the wealthy white elite. This means ensuring that cost is not a barrier to all community members who would like to participate.

Government must support the public administration of “volunteer run” core services.  

Whether running an after-school program, organizing a community clean up, leading a school parent- teacher association, or managing a youth sports program, the skills required are akin to those possessed by master’s level public administrators. Providing these services requires expertise in managing thousands (and possibly millions) of dollars in revenue and expenses, managing the human capacity of volunteers (and sometimes employees), managing vendors, providing customer service to participants, overseeing information technology and cyber security, purchasing insurance, and completing tax documents. These are often not the skills possessed by the millions of volunteers managing these types of critical community services. Though some support resources exist through affiliations with national organizations, few are readily available in low-income communities of color. In cases where these are the only services in the community, like youth sports programs, the risks are high when things go wrong. Government must support (both technically and financially) community leaders and volunteers when providing these services.

The act of serving should not be reserved for the privileged.

While I enjoy the feeling I get from volunteering for the Titans, I am keenly aware that my class privilege is what allows me to serve. As someone with a 9-5 job, discretionary income, and almost complete control over my own professional schedule, I am in a uniquely privileged position to serve. True equity in the sector would mean that no matter the race or ethnicity, background, or income, anyone with the desire to serve would be able. Unfortunately, much of our service infrastructure (AmeriCorps, VISTA, and others) support the archetype of a young, financially stable, and probably white volunteer. In many communities, this is not the type of volunteer most needed. In some communities the need is greater to recruit volunteers who might be experiencing many of the challenges the program is seeking to solve. Attracting these volunteers may require a different type of infrastructure than the one we currently have.

In closing, I would be remiss if I did not commend the city of Alexandria for its intentional and diligent support for the Alexandria Titans as we transitioned the program. As a sector we must acknowledge that in the words of Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility” (that’s a Spider-Man reference). For those of us in the service sector now responsible for providing critical but formerly government services, this means providing an experience for our volunteers and participants that centers equity and inclusion.

Jeremie Greer is the co-founder and co-executive director of Liberation in a Generation, a new racial and economic justice organization that seeks to galvanize the political power of people of color towards their own economic liberation. He is also an Independent Sector Policy Fellow.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Independent Sector.

Types: All
Global Topics: Civil Society, Race, Equity, and Inclusion, Voices for Good
Policy Issues: Nonprofit Operations