An Unexpected Career in Volunteer Service

Apr 18, 2014

Tracy Hoover, an America’s Promise Alliance trustee, has been a dedicated leader in the service movement for the majority of her career. America’s Promise Alliance asked Hoover to talk a little about herself. (See the original post here.)

Tracy Hoover

Q: You’ve devoted most of your career to service. Was there a specific moment that this issue “clicked” with you and became your personal and professional passion? Why service?

A. Points of Light’s founder George H. W. Bush says every definition of a successful life includes service to others. Like many people, I started volunteering out of a desire to give back. Organizations like Hands On Atlanta made it easy for people like me to find fun, flexible volunteer projects at night and on weekends.

But volunteering in Atlanta’s public schools and homeless shelters taught me a lot – about our city and its citizens, about complex issues like illiteracy and hunger, and about how engaged citizens can change the odds. It also taught me a lot about myself – and launched me on an unexpected career in service that has spanned two decades (so far), and that has defined meaning and purpose for me.

Why service? Because it’s transformational – it changes communities, it changes the odds, and it changes lives – on both sides of the service equation.  

Q: As the decades pass, what has changed the most about the service/volunteerism field, what has changed the least, and where do you see the field heading in the next 10 or so years? 

A: Twenty years ago, it was disruptive, in a good way, to allow people to sign up for a “hands-on,” volunteer-managed service project. It gave the ultimate power and choice to individuals and required nonprofits to package volunteer opportunities in new and different ways.

Today, millennials and technology are creating change that’s just as disruptive, still in a good way, for volunteers and for nonprofits that depend on them. I’m excited to see volunteers becoming more informed consumers, trying to make the best and highest use of their time, talents, dollars, networks and more. That’s a big challenge for the nonprofit sector.

It’s also exciting to see how technology is driving innovation in service: crowdsourcing, social media, mobile apps, social enterprise. Individuals have more power, more opportunities and tools for leveraging all of their assets – their time, talent, voice, philanthropic dollars and consumer power – to make a difference. 

I do want to point out that amidst all this change, some critical things have stayed the same. People still volunteer because someone asks them to. Service still brings people together. And volunteers are still the only constantly renewable resource capable of creating dramatic improvements and bringing them to scale.

Q: What do you think about mandated volunteering through a high school class requirement? Could it turn off teenagers, who never like being required to do anything?

We spend a lot of time working to increase the number of volunteers in the world and the impact of what they do. So we examine why people volunteer, and in survey after survey the answer is the same – it’s because they were asked. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? But, if you really think about the traditional ways people are invited to serve – and who is typically invited to serve – you realize that a lot of people are left out and a lot of potential is untapped.

When done well, I think compulsory service can create an entry point for people to find their passion and tap into their power to make a difference.  I’ve seen this happen many times – when a minor infraction inspired “community service” that became a family tradition, when a high school student from an under-resourced school started tutoring in a volunteer Saturday program – initially, to satisfy a graduation service requirement, but then because it mattered. It’s also worth noting that both the high schooler who volunteered and the younger student he tutored did better in school. 

Compulsory service can be a starting point for a lifetime of service. That said, we’re all for encouraging people to serve because every single person can make a difference, regardless of background, means, education, connections. We all have a role to play to create a better world.

Q: Anything else you’d like people to know?

A: Yes. Just a few days ago, Points of Light, AmeriCorps and the Citi Foundation announced a major public-private partnership we’re calling ServiceWorks. The $10 million, 10-city initiative will engage 25,000 youth, age 16-24, in service and build a large-scale volunteer response to the crisis of low college and career attainment.

We plan to give young people training in critical 21st-century leadership and workplace skills, the chance to build professional networks and connections to their communities, and the opportunity to use their new skills by participating in and leading volunteer service projects.  And we’ll give thousands of volunteers – including Citi employees – the chance to participate as success coaches and mentors.

Research shows that young people involved in service exhibit a significant change in “life skills such as showing increased concern for others, improved ability to problem solve, and improvements in self-perceptions of potency – the ability to make a difference in a community.” And a 2013 study by the Corporation for National and Community Service shows that volunteering is associated with an increased likelihood of finding employment for all volunteers regardless of a person’s gender, age, ethnicity, geographical area or job market conditions.

ServiceWorks will demonstrate that the coupling of national service and volunteer service can help level the playing field for low-income young people, not only by decreasing the opportunity gaps they face but by increasing the likelihood that they will stay in school and find good jobs. Read more about the program at