Written by Audrey Suker
To this day, I am a big admirer of the legislation that created AmeriCorps, the 1993 National Community Service Trust Act. The authors of the act were brilliant. They believed in the idea of reinventing government through entrepreneurship – and so created a system of AmeriCorps that fosters competition and innovation. Two Minnesota legislators, Senator Dave Durenberger and the late Senator Paul Wellstone, were chief authors of the bill, helping to spark our state’s dedication to service.
The act facilitated entrepreneurship in several ways. It created a funding structure that allowed states to compete head to head for federal funding, in addition to guaranteed funding calculated based on population. The act also created State Service Commissions in each state to control the investment of these resources. States were given full control and flexibility over where to house their State Service Commission, whether in government or as a nonprofit.
At first, Minnesota’s State Service Commission existed within Minnesota’s state government. Our placement there offered a launchpad for us, but after five years, our Board of Directors recognized that we needed to be more entrepreneurial. That’s when we made the decision to transform our State Service Commission into a nonprofit – and that’s how, twenty years ago, we created ServeMinnesota!
That decision in 2002 was a big shift for us, and was only possible because of the initial design of that legislation. Nonprofit status gave us the freedom to control the future of service in our state – and entrepreneurial values have continued to guide us during the last 20 years. They have led us to many of the hallmarks of what we do: our dedication to program research to ensure program effectiveness, our willingness to pitch in and respond to urgent issues, as well as our determination to scale our programs across our entire state and share our proven practices with other states across the country.
Over the last 20 years, ServeMinnesota has become a true catalyst for change. When I think about what’s behind our success, I think about the three main strategies we’ve used to support service in our state. We’ve used inventive combinations of these three strategies to create solutions that move the needle on statewide challenges.
- Policy Leadership: Alignment with government and community partners
As a State Service Commission, we are responsible to the state to strategically invest AmeriCorps funds. We have built programs around what issues are important to our state and policy makers – for example, recovery, health, education, and climate. We listen to the communities we serve and make sure our programs are responsive and aligned with community needs.
- Philanthropic Leadership: Innovation through funding structures
The federal government provides some of our AmeriCorps funding, but also requires matching local investment from state and private funders. That’s part of the brilliance of the design of AmeriCorps’ funding structure – we get federal support, but also must get buy-in from community partners. Over the last 20 years, we’ve been able to use that structure and build trust with funders through evidence-based programing, increasing our federal funding from about $6 million to over $25 million.
- Implementation Leadership: Investment in excellent, proven programming
We have a unique approach to AmeriCorps – we use its “people power” to build a bridge between research and practice. Using the principles of implementation science, we study our programs to make sure they are effective, and also use our findings to inform program design. This process allows us to create real solutions to critical issues in our state – and scale our programs to other states, too.
I’ve been so grateful to be part of carrying out the vision of AmeriCorps as a problem-solving strategy and I’m so looking forward to sharing more of this work with you. If you want to follow what we do, sign up for MNfocus, our monthly newsletter that goes inside the power of AmeriCorps service in Minnesota! And if you want to hear more about ServeMinnesota’s history, read this interview with me from 2019 or take a look at our history timeline.
Audrey Suker, CEO of ServeMinnesota