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What Obama's call to national service needs

More volunteers won't help if nonprofits aren't ready for them.

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President Obama has signed a law that will create an array of volunteer opportunities for Americans of all ages and will add 175,000 volunteers to AmeriCorps and four new national service corps programs – tripling the current number of annual AmeriCorps volunteers by 2017.

This landmark law, cosponsored by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, represents a forward-looking bipartisan effort to tap America's greatest resource – the talent, time, and entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens – at a time when the country needs it most.

But nonprofits, hit hard by the global economic slump, in many cases are not equipped to handle the coming influx of well-intentioned helpers. Thousands of organizations must scale up quickly to translate this idealism into real service to struggling communities. Otherwise, the surge in volunteers may mean thousands of good intentions and billions of dollars that don't move the dial on tough social issues.

Given the timetable of the legislation to begin in October and almost double the current number of volunteers (from 75,000 to 140,000) by the end of 2012, there's little time to waste.

First, to ensure that the solution fits the problem rather than the other way around, service corps programs should give communities a stake in and a forum for setting priorities and conveying their needs.

This can be done through regular town hall meetings, forums, or surveys. And it should then be followed by aligning volunteer placements with the specific needs of the community. This kind of process where the leadership comes from the members of the community, and the staff are accountable for adhering to the members' vision, has been proven to get results.

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