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Social Capitalists: Profile

Social Capitalists

By Jennifer Vilaga

City Year

Boston, Massachusetts

Founded: 1988
Field: Youth service
Budget: $32.8 million

For Alan Khazei and Michael Brown's vision of a national-service program to take root, they first had to grow it in their own backyard. Nobody could argue against the idea: Recruit a diverse group of young people to devote a full year of community service in exchange for an educational stipend. But few could see how it would work. So in 1988, after graduating from Harvard Law School, Khazei and Brown launched an eight-week 50-person pilot program in Boston. Since then, City Year has flowered into 14 sites nationwide, and some 6,000 17- to 24-year-olds have logged more than 11 million hours of service.

  • Entrepreneurship: B+
  • Innovation: A
  • Social Impact: A+
  • Aspiration: A-
  • Sustainability: A-

A self-described "action tank," City Year is driven by a theory of change that unites people from diverse backgrounds around community service. As a result, argues CEO Khazei, social bonds are strengthened -- improving democracy and curbing apathy and community splintering.

Cleaning up neighborhoods, staffing after-school programs, and building parks and playgrounds are just a few examples of how corps members improve their community through City Year. While City Year's benefits are immediate for local schools and neighborhoods, the program has an ongoing impact on corps members. City Year alumni vote at twice the rate of their peers, form deep relationships with people from different backgrounds, and tend to remain involved in their communities. Some have even gone on to start their own nonprofits.

City Year has actively engaged the business sector as well, forging alliances that extend beyond traditional corporate partnerships and into service. The shoe company Timberland, an early sponsor, not only provides City Year's signature uniform but also sets aside stipends for employees to take a yearlong, full-time service sabbatical. Likewise, Cisco provides "fellows" to lend IT support to the organization. Comcast, a more recent sponsor, is running a City Year recruitment campaign. "It's about more than money and financial support," Khazei says. "The point is to get their expertise."

The organization has also inspired and informed other nonprofits, with AmeriCorps perhaps being the most famous example. A 1991 visit to City Year's headquarters in Boston solidified then presidential candidate Bill Clinton's resolve to jump-start AmeriCorps, his vision of a nationwide, federally funded service initiative. City Year has been a member of the organization since AmeriCorps' launch in 1993.

This past year proved City Year's most challenging. A 45% cut in funding, resulting in last summer's decimation of AmeriCorps, took the organization by surprise. (It was only prepared for a 10% to 20% cut, according to Khazei.) In response, City Year limited enrollment for the first time in five years, from 1,000 kids to 750 -- and as of early November, it only had enough money to support 550 of them. The setback is temporary, though: Congress recently reinstated funding to support 1,000 corps members next year.

Having survived such a tumultuous year, the organization is looking ahead to the milestones planned for 2004, including the celebration of its 15th anniversary and the launch of its 15th site in Little Rock, Arkansas, this fall. Also heavy on the minds of cofounders Khazei, 42, and Brown, 43, are challenges of stabilization and scale. "Despite all of the cuts, there's still tremendous interest," says Khazei. "We have to make City Year built to last."


Michael Brown and Alan Khazei, Cofounders

Michael Brown and Alan Khazei were roommates at Harvard College and then at Harvard Law School, where they hatched the plan that would become City Year. Brown previously served as a legislative aide for Congressman Leon Panetta, a public information officer for the New York City Volunteer Corps, and law clerk for a federal judge. He speaks frequently on issues relating to youth policy, national service, and democracy building. He has compiled a booklet, Putting Idealism to Work, which documents City Year's values, ideas, and methods. Khazei was appointed to the board of directors of the Commission on National and Community Service where he served as vice chair. Khazei is on the board of directors of Citizen Schools, New Profit Inc., the Partnership for Public Service, and Share Our Strength. He sits on the advisory board of America's Promise, the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and the board of directors of the Harvard Alumni Association.

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