Hillary Schafer

  Hillary Schafer


The next generation of workers is already being educated in schools across the country. Our challenge is to ensure they are receiving the education they need to become productive workers in the years to come. The best way to do that just might surprise you: engaging young people in public service.

When most people think about public service, they consider how it benefits the recipient. There’s no doubt that communities are strengthened when schools are fixed up and more families can put food on the table. Yet, I think this overlooks one of the most important benefits of public service: the skills it offers to those who participate. A young person running their own service project gains leadership, organization, and engagement skills that will benefit them as they continue their education and enter the workforce. Public service not only helps communities, but it trains young people to succeed in their own lives.

This theory is backed up by a powerful new study by Marc Prensky, entitled Unleashing the Power of our 21st-Century Kids, which proposes a radical transformation in our education system. Prensky suggests that if you put kids together with real-world problems that they themselves perceive, the result is real world accomplishment, and they become good, empowered and effective world-improving people.

Prensky goes on to say, “Imagine if kids, after leaving K-12, entered college or a job recruiter’s office not as they do today, with a transcript of grades and (at best) a vague idea of what they would like to accomplish, but rather with an actual résumé of accomplishments, with scores of projects completed over a K-12 career, in multiple areas and roles, and a clear idea of the kinds of roles and projects that suit them best and that excite their passions.”

That is exactly what the Jefferson Awards Foundation (JAF) hopes to achieve with our youth programs. By having curricula focused on team building, leadership, community needs, project planning, fundraising, public speaking, tracking impact, marketing, media relations and scale, students are prepared to make a big impact in their communities and enter the workforce with the experience employers are looking for. Below are five of the core skills our students learn through public service. By cultivating and implementing these skills, students can become a powerful upcoming work force, which leads to long-term sustainability for our communities.

1. Identifying Problems

When students are presented with the opportunity to tackle the problems they are most passionate about solving, the vast majority identify community needs. Through public service, students hone their ability to identify problems by determining which issues are most pressing and which issues they would be able to impact. Choosing to volunteer at a soup kitchen or lead a clothing drive means that a student has identified a problem, imagined a solution, and determined how much of their own time and resources to invest in solving that problem.

2. Team Building

In school, group assignments often lead to frustration. Yet teamwork is something that should be encouraged and valued. Through public service, students quickly learn how powerful teamwork can be. It becomes easily apparent that collecting ten cans of food for a local shelter is less productive than working with ten of your friends to collect ten cans each – and asking even more to join in the process. One of the most important skills to teach students is how to engage their peers to join them to multiply their impact.

3. Project Planning

It’s often too hard for young people to gain project-planning experience. The next workforce will require people to not only come up with big ideas, but also implement those ideas. Students won’t learn these skills through papers or tests, but through actionable projects they are able to organize and execute on their own. Public service offers a pathway for every young person, of any background, to take ownership of a service project from beginning to end. There’s no better way to learn how to plan a project than by running one on your own and seeing what works and where you fall short.

4. Marketing

Many young people have large ambitions. Not only do they have a problem they want to solve, but they want to solve that problem nationwide. They quickly learn that the best way to engage their peers, whether within their school or across the country, is through marketing. Students learn how to use social media as an organizational and motivational tool, and how to create videos, digital campaigns, and written descriptions that inspire others to get involved. They also learn the power of storytelling to garner support and grow their projects.

5. Tracking Impact

Measuring success is one of the most important skills students learn through public service, and it’s the one they learn most naturally because young people like knowing how much they achieve. They track not only the number of items or the amount of money they collect, but also the number of lives they impact. In turn, they learn how to recognize when their projects need adjusting, and whether they are attacking the actual cause of a problem or merely an effect of it. At JAF, we train our students how to quantify all of their results and how to analyze their work. This allows them to improve their projects as they go on to generate the greatest impact.

One of my favorite examples of how public service has transformed young people is Patricia Manubay, a young woman who participated in two of our youth programs. When we first met Patricia, she was a shy high school student who lacked confidence in her own abilities. To put it in her own words, “I did not believe I had the power to lift anyone up, especially myself. Service changed that.”

Patricia came to us with the idea of putting together care packages that encourage students to pursue their dreams. But she didn’t know how to bring it all together. We taught her how to develop her idea, engage her peers, and implement her idea nationwide. With these skills, her project is now active in all 50 states, benefitting more than 350,000 lives. She is now a sophomore in college who will soon enter the workforce with project management experience gained entirely through public service.

But young people don’t have to start their own nationwide project to benefit from activating public service. Simply participating in a project offers many benefits including teamwork, organization, and engagement skills, as well as the knowledge that you can make a difference.

The benefits are particularly striking for at-risk youth. A national study by Opportunity Nation shows that civic engagement cuts youth disengagement by 50%. It motivates young people to stay in school, hold onto jobs and remain on a path beneficial to themselves and their community.

Our own faculty advisors report that learning our curriculum and engaging in service projects throughout the school-year yields an enormous benefit:

  • 80% of our at-risk youth participants graduate high school
  • 71% attend four-year colleges
  • 83% feel better prepared for college and workforce
  • 94% feel empowered to make a difference

There is widespread support for students to gain hands-on experience through public service. In fact, according to a 2016 national poll by Penn Schoen Berland, 90% of Americans believe community engagement delivers leadership and project management skills to young people.

Students should have every opportunity to receive an education that is fueled by their skills and interests, preparing them for the futures they, and our communities, deserve. I’ve found that public service is both a pathway to higher education and a fundamental tool for training young people to enter the workforce with the experience they need. By training young people to help others, we also train them to succeed themselves. Public service is essential for better education and career outcomes, and that’s why I’m so committed to encouraging it.

Hillary Schafer was one of the highest-ranking women in the equity business but, after involvement with Hurricane Sandy relief, Hillary left the for-profit space and focused her energy and heart to elevating, celebrating and generating social impact. She is the Executive Director of the Jefferson Awards Foundation, an organization dedicated to empowering others to have maximum impact on the things they care about most.

This article is reprinted from Issue #8 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!

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