The economic downturn of 2008 was severe, and New Yorkers, like many Americans, were worried about the future. At the same time, the U.S. had a newly elected president who was calling for "a new era of service in America" and Congress was considering bipartisan legislation that would pave the way for the most significant expansion of federal support for citizen service in a generation. In early 2009, New York City followed suit, consulting with hundreds of stakeholders and organizations to produce a comprehensive snapshot of the state of volunteerism and volunteer-using organizations in the city.
The assessment identified a series of challenges. Many New Yorkers said it was difficult to locate meaningful opportunities to serve. The capacity of volunteer-reliant organizations was strained, and they were turning away willing helpers. There was little to no coordination between city agencies and volunteer-using organizations, making it difficult for citizens to be involved in the areas of highest priority to the city. Finally, efforts to engage volunteers were often focused on "days of service," which prioritized inputs (total people engaged, total hours served) rather than outcomes or efficiency.
Initiatives to structurally address these issues were created in consultation with volunteer-using organizations, service experts, and city officials. The resulting plan, NYC Service, was launched in April 2009. It established "Impact Volunteerism," which targets local need by using best practices and measuring impact. Service projects were developed to address six key priority areas: strengthening neighborhoods, helping neighbors in need (in response to the economic downturn), at-risk youth in schools, public health, energy efficiency, and emergency preparedness. Additionally, a range of initiatives were designed to strengthen the infrastructure needed to support a dramatic, impact-driven increase in service. The city established the NYC Civic Corps that deploys members to nonprofits and public agencies to expand their capacity to use more volunteers more effectively. Other changes included enhancing online and 311 presence and functionality, the creation of a chief service officer position within city government (the first position of its kind in a municipality), and establishing a centralized clearinghouse for background checks.
In its inaugural year, NYC Service launched over 30 initiatives. Through NYC Civic Corps, nearly 200 AmeriCorps VISTA members were dispatched to 56 nonprofits and city agencies to create sustainable impact volunteer programs. The program has recruited more than 30,000 new volunteers, served nearly 200,000 New Yorkers, and raised more than $500,000 in cash and nearly $2 million in non-cash resources for the organizations they serve.
In September 2009, the mayor convened 16 mayors of large and small cities from across the country to launch the bipartisan Cities of Service coalition. The coalition has grown since its inception to now include more than 95 mayors representing over 45 million Americans. Members have committed to developing local comprehensive service plans and to work together to advance the concept of service as a serious municipal strategy. The coalition has produced a step-by-step guide for cities as they develop their own plans based on NYC Service's best practices. Private foundations have joined the effort, funding the hiring of chief service officers in member cities through a competitive grant process. By September 2010, there were chief service officers in 20 additional cities across the nation.