How AmeriCorps Works

By: Eleanor Duse

AmeriCorps is often described as being "like the Peace Corps, but domestic."
AmeriCorps is often described as being "like the Peace Corps, but domestic."
©iStockphoto/Christa Brunt

AmeriCorps is often described as being "like the Peace Corps, but domestic" -- and that's more or less an accurate comparison. AmeriCorps is a national service program, with most volunteers working full-time for about a year. In return, they receive housing, a living allowance, college tuition assistance and the satisfaction of knowing they have improved lives in their community.

AmeriCorps does not act alone. It works with public and private organizations, including nonprofits and schools, in the communities it serves. This structure helps ensure that communities get informed help from the people who best understand local problems and needs. It also avoids redundancy of resources. As with other national volunteer programs, such as Senior Corps, service is overseen and administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service.


As President Clinton said in 1993, serving with AmeriCorps comes down to three questions: "What is right? What is wrong? And what are you going to do about it?" [source: AmeriCorps]. Since then, more than a quarter-million volunteers have decided that what they will do about it is serve [source: NAU]. AmeriCorps volunteers work in schools and after-school education programs. They construct homes. They work to reduce gang-related violence. They help with environmental cleanup efforts.

You're probably most familiar with the concept of the young volunteer taking a gap year -- a year of service between high school and college or in the middle of a college degree program. Many volunteers do follow this model, but not all of them do so. AmeriCorps volunteers are often young, but they are not exclusively so. Volunteers typically have more education and lower income than the national average. And women and minorities are more likely to serve [source: ABT].

In this article, we'll take a closer look at AmeriCorps -- its different components, its history and legislation, and how to get involved. First, we'll look at state and national programs.

AmeriCorps State and National

The AmeriCorps State and National program supports community organizations across the country, linking their efforts with federal volunteers and moneys. Organizations apply for grants of assistance, which are administered either by the Corporation for National and Community Service or by state service commissions.

The organizations that receive assistance from AmeriCorps State and National are quite varied. Although most are nonprofits, some are universities while others are Indian tribes. Some work towards providing housing for the underprivileged, or -- particularly in recent years -- helping people deal with foreclosures. Some help community members gain education, literacy and job skills. Some work to provide community members with access to health care. Some clean up parks or assist in other environmental efforts. Some offer assistance with financial planning. AmeriCorps volunteers can help with all of these efforts. Others work directly with the nonprofit to help it get stronger from the inside, through better management, organizational infrastructure, community relations, resource allocation and strategy.


AmeriCorps volunteers help community organizations dramatically increase their reach and efforts, as well as raise their profiles in the community. One AmeriCorps volunteer typically recruits and manages 12 community volunteers [source: CNCS].

The AmeriCorps State and National program asks a lot of its volunteers, but the commitment is somewhat more flexible than the full-time -- and intensive -- National Civilian Community Corps, or NCCC. State and National volunteers may serve for the full-time year, a commitment of at least 1,700 hours. Or they may serve part-time, or work full-time for only one season. The minimum volunteer commitment is about 300 hours [source: AmeriCorps State].

On the next page, we'll look at AmeriCorps VISTA.

AmeriCorps VISTA

AmeriCorps VISTA is not the version that comes after AmeriCorps XP. VISTA stands for "Volunteers in Service to America." Of course, everyone at AmeriCorps is in service to the country -- so what makes VISTA different?

VISTA began as a stand-alone program in 1965, inspired by an idea of John F. Kennedy. It was -- and remains -- dedicated to fighting poverty. Its work includes literacy training, health services, community business and civic development. In 1995, VISTA became part of AmeriCorps.


VISTA programs work in correlation with other public and private organizations, including nonprofits and faith-based organizations. These organizations can offer to sponsor a VISTA program -- meaning they supervise and direct the project and provide the administrative support. That means a community group that wants to accomplish major change -- but needs help to do it -- can petition to have the project become a VISTA project.

VISTA volunteers -- known as VISTAs -- commit to one year of service. Like other AmeriCorps volunteers, they receive a living allowance, child care and health care, with a modest cash bonus or Segal Education Award at the conclusion of their service. Unlike other AmeriCorps volunteers, VISTAs may opt to receive a small monthly stipend in lieu of the education award [source: AmeriCorps]. Existing student loans are deferred for the length of service. VISTAs also enjoy favored status when they apply for federal jobs in the year after their service. And they become a part of the VISTA alumni network, which provides access to almost 200,000 like-minded workers [source: AmeriCorps VISTA].

VISTA often looks for volunteers with a bit more experience. It has no upper age limit, and it often welcomes midcareer volunteers -- even retirees. Many VISTA programs need the experience and skills that seasoned volunteers can provide.

On the next page, we'll look at a different way to serve -- the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps.

AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps

Modeled on the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) is a crack team of young volunteers assigned to work on urgent short-term projects. Volunteers between the ages of 18 and 24 live and train at one of five NCCC campuses, which work a bit like military bases. (The campuses are organized by region, and volunteers -- although they may receive a child-care allowance -- are not permitted to bring their children to live with them.) When a need arises, teams of 10 to 12 volunteers are deployed to help.

With what sort of problem might the team be helping? It might be a natural disaster, or a critical environmental cleanup. NCCC volunteers also work to fix problems in education, public safety and homeland security. The NCCC has a catch-all sixth category, "unmet needs," that conveniently covers most other possibilities.


In essence, the NCCC program functions something like community triage. NCCC volunteers receive training in rapid-response skills, including CPR and first aid, as well as emergency recovery. Whereas an AmeriCorps volunteer would be with a community for an entire year, an NCCC volunteer is typically on the scene for no more than six or eight weeks. You can think of an NCCC volunteer as an emergency medical technician, in contrast to the AmeriCorps volunteer, who is more like a long-term physician.

A year of NCCC work includes a minimum of 1,700 hours of service. Volunteers must function well within their teams and communities, and must be able to adjust to sudden changes and upheavals. Still, one AmeriCorps NCCC volunteer, Margaret, calls it "the best experience of my life" [source: Planet Gap Year].

On the next page, we'll look at the volunteer opportunities available to people who aren't U.S. citizens.

Joining AmeriCorps

Most AmeriCorps work is a full-time commitment, not something you can do on your weekends or the occasional evening after work. Most AmeriCorps positions expect 1,700 hours of service in a year, and some do not permit you to hold another job during your term of service. AmeriCorps State and National programs may have a bit more flexibility. If you're not sure, though, you might want to start by volunteering part-time at a local organization and seeing how you like it.

If you're sure you're ready to join, you have several options. AmeriCorps NCCC requires a lengthy application and selection process. For AmeriCorps State and National programs, visit the AmeriCorps Web site and select the causes you're interested in -- as varied as elder care, technology and rehabilitating ex-offenders -- and the location in which you'd like to serve. You'll be able to access a long list of volunteer opportunities for your state. If you're not sure how you'd like to get involved, check out the interactive opportunity assessment [source: AmeriCorps].


Different AmeriCorps programs have different qualifications. In general, you'll need to be at least 17 or 18 years old and a U.S. citizen or national or lawful permanent resident. Some programs have no education requirements. Many VISTA programs ask that volunteers have a college degree or at least three years of work experience. Some programs look for volunteers with specific skills or fluency in a second language, especially Spanish. Since many VISTA programs serve children and the elderly, joining AmeriCorps VISTA requires a criminal background check. All AmeriCorps programs ask for your flexibility, your willingness to learn, your passion and your commitment.

At the conclusion of their service, AmeriCorps volunteers are eligible to receive the Segal Education Award, which provides nearly $5,000 in tuition assistance (or, if you have already completed school, student loan repayment). Volunteers also receive a basic living allowance that enables them to serve full-time without undue hardship [source: AmeriCorps].

On the next page, we'll look at the legislative history of AmeriCorps.

History and Legislation of AmeriCorps

AmeriCorps is the product of initiatives introduced by legislators on both sides of the political divide. One thing on which we can all agree, it seems, is the enormous importance of public service -- not only to the communities but also to the volunteers. Legislation tied to community service seems to receive extra impetus in times of economic difficulty.

In 1990, the first President Bush signed the National and Community Service Act. The act included literacy and conservation efforts, some linked to the Youth Service Corps. It also called for the creation of a nonprofit Points of Light foundation, named for Bush's "thousand points of light" inaugural speech and designed to identify new opportunities for community service. Under the Bush program, volunteers received small grants in recognition of their service [source: FWS].


AmeriCorps began formally in 1993 under President Clinton, who united several programs under an "umbrella" organization and created the Corporation for National and Community Service (the organization that administers AmeriCorps and several other national volunteer efforts). With the National and Community Service Trust Act, AmeriCorps began offering educational assistance in return for service. In 1995, VISTA joined the AmeriCorps family of programs.

Clinton's service plan came under fire from many conservatives, many of whom questioned the effectiveness and efficiency of the program's administration [source: Spalding]. Critics tend to refer to it as a "soft" program or one that exists for the sake of photo opportunities rather than real change. However, when the second President Bush announced plans to expand the program and raise the number of volunteers, he met with support, even from conservatives [source: Lynch].

In 2009, President Obama's recovery plan expanded funding for AmeriCorps. This aspect of the plan is known as the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, in honor of Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), a longtime champion of community service.

In less than 20 years, AmeriCorps volunteers have accomplished a great deal. The program is clearly popular, and -- critics or no -- it seems to be bringing civic-minded individuals into the areas that need them most. What happens next? Well, that's up to you.

To learn more, visit the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • ABT Associates. "Serving Country and Community: A Study of Service in AmeriCorps." June 2001. (Accessed 5/26/09)
  • AmeriCorps. "National Service Agency Announces 10,000 New Service Positions Funded by Recovery Act." May 14, 2009. (Accessed 5/25/09)
  • AmeriCorps. "NCCC FAQs." 2009. (Accessed 5/25/09)
  • AmeriCorps. "AmeriCorps National." 2009. (Accessed 5/26/09)
  • AmeriCorps. "AmeriCorps State." 2009. (Accessed 5/26/09)
  • AmeriCorps. "AmeriCorps VISTA." 2009. (Accessed 5/25/09)
  • AmeriCorps. "Eligibility for Individuals." 2009. (Accessed 5/26/09)
  • Corporation for National and Community Service. "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009." March 2009. (Accessed 5/26/09)
  • Fish and Wildlife Service. "Digest of Federal Resource Laws of Interest to the U.S. FWS: National and Community Service Act of 1990." (Accessed 5/26/09)
  • Lynch, Mike. "Bush's Legions - Soundbite: President Bush plans to expand Clinton's AmeriCorps." Reason. 2002. (Accessed 5/26/09)
  • Northern Arizona University. "AmeriCorps History." (Accessed 5/26/09)
  • Planet Gap Year. "AmeriCorps NCCC Student Blogs About Gap Year Volunteer Experience." August 24, 2008. (Accessed 5/25/09)
  • Spalding, Matthew. "AmeriCorps: Still a Bad Idea for Citizen Service." The Heritage Foundation. June 28, 2002. (Accessed 5/26/09)