United We Serve: voluntary community service in the US

Soon after President Obama took office, Barack and Michelle Obama announced United We Serve, a campaign encouraging Americans from all walks of life to volunteer for community projects. It was led by the Corporation for National and Community Service and began during the summer of 2009. The projects were focused on helping the disadvantaged in areas such as education and health, and the aim was for the summer campaign to lead to a sustained nationwide rise in volunteering.

The challenge

After the financial crisis of 2007-08, there was a great deal of hardship and little government money available to provide support for the disadvantaged. There was a lack of people involved in the voluntary sector to provide the support that the local and federal administration could not.

The initiative

As a response to this challenge, "the President and the First Lady launched United We Serve, a call to service led by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) – the federal agency for home service – as a nationwide initiative to create a sustained, collaborative, and focused effort to meet community needs and make service a way of life for all Americans." [1] This initiative aims to both build on the work of existing organisations by “engaging new volunteers in their work and encourage volunteers to develop their own ‘do-it-yourself’ project." [2]

It was launched on 22 June 2009, at the CNCS’s National Conference on Volunteering and Service in San Francisco. “It began with an 81-day call to service over the summer, which culminated with the first ever National Day of Service and Remembrance on 9/11." [3] The CNCS also launched Serve.gov, the online home of United We Serve, which “provides tools for people to find service projects in their communities, develop their own projects, work with the media to promote their efforts, and share inspiring stories of service." [4]

The public impact

The CNCS engaged nearly 400 national service partners in the summer of 2009, including “over 120 organisations introduced for the first time to CNCS through the initiative, and thousands of local non-profit and faith-based partners ... Serve.gov has amassed nearly 250,000 searchable opportunities in communities across the country." [6]

In the ‘Volunteering and Civic Engagement in the US’ report of 2014, it was stated that:

  • 25.3% of the adult population in the country engage in voluntary work.
  • Citizens have performed 7.9 billion hours of voluntary service.
  • USD184 billion of service has been contributed as part of the United We Serve initiative.

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.


Public Confidence Fair

The overwhelming interest and participation in AmeriCorps can be considered as a measurement of support from the public. “‘We know that many folks are eager to give back. [8] We've seen it,’ continued First Lady Obama. ‘They are eager to be part of this nation's recovery and renewal…As hard examples, applications to AmeriCorps have quadrupled. In the Peace Corps last year, there were three applications for every available position ... People across this country are ready to answer the call to serve".

Stakeholder Engagement Good

The US president, the first lady and the cabinet were the main political stakeholders in the United We Serve campaign. From the operations point of view, CNCS was the major stakeholder, being the agency entrusted with implementing the programme. The other stakeholders were the volunteers and the beneficiaries of the United We Serve community service.

Political Commitment Strong

The commitment to the United We Serve campaign came from the top, with Barack and Michelle Obama and the cabinet: “a dozen Cabinet officials and first lady Michelle Obama fanned out across the country Monday to kick off a 12-week programme, called United We Serve, that aims to stimulate economic growth and encourage community service through extended volunteer work." [7]

The US Congress passed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in 2009, giving impetus to AmeriCorps, which plays an integral part in United We Serve. The Act reauthorised the CNCS and its programmes from 2009 to 2014 and included some significant provisions, e.g., in support of AmeriCorps and the Social Innovation Fund. The initiative had cross-party support.


Clear Objectives Good

United We Serve was intended as an 81-day nationwide initiative to meet community needs and make voluntary service a way of life for all Americans to “help meet growing social needs resulting from the economic downturn." [9] It aimed to create a new and sustainable ethos of service to the community, “across historical barriers of religion, race, and ethnicity." [10]

Michelle Obama “helped build a playground at Bret Harte Public Elementary School in San Francisco with California first lady, Maria Shriver — an event designed to underscore the importance of children’s health and wellbeing." [11] This was symbolic of the objectives of community engagement in the service of education and health.

Feasibility Strong

The 'United we Serve' campaign was initiated by President Obama and his government and supported by legislation, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act 2009. This provided the legal framework and impetus for voluntary service as well as the necessary funding. “The most sweeping expansion of national service in generations was passed into law on April 2009. Known as, this bill includes advancements for the Corporation for National and Community Service, our nation’s largest grant-maker for service and volunteer opportunities for all ages." [12]

The central involvement of the CNCS, a federal agency of long standing, supported the logistical feasibility of the campaign. It helped coordinate enable thousands of national and local not-for-profit organisations, faith-based groups, schools, and municipal agencies to solve hard problems and meet local needs in education, the environment, public safety, disaster response, and other critical areas.


Management Good

The United We Serve campaign was implemented in association with the CNCS, which was principally responsible for its management. The CNCS was created as a federal agency by the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. It is responsible for running a number of programmes, including the newly-created AmeriCorps, the new National Civilian Community Corps programmes, and the full-time, and Learn and Serve America. Its CEO is Wendy Spencer, who served as CEO of the Florida Governor’s Commission on Volunteerism under three state governors before joining the CNCS.

Measurement Good

The impact of United We Serve during the summer of 2009 was measured by the CNCS (see Public impact above). The organisation  issues the ‘Volunteering and Civic Life in America’ study every year in partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship.

The main indicators are number of citizens engaged, the number of hours of voluntary service, and the value given to those hours worked.

Alignment Strong

United We Serve received overwhelming support from various quarters of society and cooperation between them:

  • From the federal government and both major political parties.
  • From the main stakeholders, e.g., the CNCS.
  • Other voluntary organisation, such as America’s Promise Alliance and United Way who jointly supported United. “As part of its support for United We Serve, the Alliance will engage its more than 300 partners from all sectors to participate in the initiative." [13]
  • The members of AmeriCorps.
  • Other citizen volunteers.