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AmeriCorps and Social Innovation Fund Are 'Impact' Players

The top U.S. official in charge of community service and innovative social funding was in Chicago recently looking for additional proof that carefully targeted federal investments are making enormous differences in people’s lives.

Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, was in Chicago recently to observe the impact of the AmeriCorps program and the Social Innovation Fund.

Photos by John McCarron

So it was important for Wendy Spencer to meet Patrick Auguste.

She’s CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency that funds and runs the well-known AmeriCorps service program as well as the newer Social Innovation Fund, or SIF.

He’s a 50-year-old South Sider who admits life was drifting toward personal destruction before he connected with the Jane Addams Resource Corporation, aka JARC, a job-training and life-skills program that is part of LISC Chicago's Center for Working Families network. LISC has made great use of AmeriCorps and SIF by deploying AmeriCorps members to build the capacity of many SIF-funded centers, including JARC.

“I’ve had some low-paying jobs, but I just wanted more,” Auguste told Spencer shortly after the two were introduced in the conference room at JARC, located in the North Side’s Ravenswood industrial corridor.

First he took JARC’s remedial math course, he explained, “because I never did learn my times tables.” Then he took JARC’s fork-lift course and got his operator’s certificate. Now he’s about to graduate from the metals welding sequence and was just hired as a welder by a Chicago area company.

Just as important, though, are the personal financial skills he’s been learning at the companion Financial Opportunity Center (or Center for Working Families, as it’s called in Chicago) that LISC helped JARC install with assistance from both AmeriCorps and the Social Innovation Fund.

“They taught me how to use the banking system,” Auguste said, “How to save, how get a loan. Once I had a union job and Chris (his JARC financial coach) helped me find out I have benefits coming when I turn 65. Between that, and the welding skills, it’s built my confidence up … made me think I can provide.”

Patrick Auguste is learning welding skills and financial management through the Jane Addams Resource Corporation and its Center for Working Families.

Earn it, grow it

And provide he will, not just because JARC has a strong record for placing graduates in jobs paying family-sustaining wages, but because he’ll have: a higher credit score; direct deposit to his own bank account; even a $500 set of welding gear donated by Benevolent, an online crowd-funding partner of JARC.

“That speaks to the innovation part,” said Kevin Jordan, LISC’s senior vice-president of national programs. He was at the table helping to explain how LISC has used a five-year, $16.8 million Social Innovation Fund grant from CNCS to expand and refine LISC’s Chicago-born model of Financial Opportunity Centers. SIF dollars helped bring “bundled” employment and family financial services to seven additional U.S. cities, Jordan said, and they’ve helped expand services to 47 FOCs across 10 LISC cities. And typical of LISC, several private-side funders have been recruited to the effort, including Citi Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, Walmart Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. LISC has leveraged these resources and the national network stands at 71 sites across 30 cities today.

Ricki Lowitz, LISC Chicago’s director of economic opportunities, stressed how performance measurements – such as job retention rates and FICO scores – were built into the model from the get-go. But SIF funding, she said, along with fresh thinking brought by staffers from AmeriCorps, have meant continual refinements.

“They are extremely entrepreneurial,” Lowitz said about the AmeriCorps volunteers at JARC and many other LISC Financial Opportunity Centers. “One of our AmeriCorps staff told us ‘I’ve helped X-number of families save or obtain X-number of dollars over the last six months.’ Really? So we added that metric system-wide.”

Wendy Spencer and LISC's Kevin Jordan discuss how the Social Innovation Fund has been applied at the neighborhood level.

Impact counts

Measuring impact is crucial, especially with funding once again hanging in the balance for the entire Corporation for National and Community Service.

Last March the U.S. House passed a proposal that virtually eliminated the CNCS and AmeriCorps. President Barack Obama’s counter-proposal for Fiscal Year 2014 preserves the Corporation at the existing $1 billion level. But even that level would be subject to a steep cut if the existing sequestration formula, which already has forced elimination of 4,000 AmeriCorps slots, carries into FY 2014.

"I think you've got it right on the model," Jordan said of JARC's combination of employment training and family financial counseling. "Now we've got to get the word out about the impact." And, he added, about people such as rookie welder Patrick Auguste.

More information:

Seung Kim, LISC National, 312-422-9579

Ricki Lowitz, LISC Chicago, 312-422-9559

Sheryl Morris, JARC CWF, 773-728-9769

Posted in Economic Development, Financial Opportunities


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