Academy Article
March 29, 2024

Helping to Build Demand for National Service


Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, the final report of a bipartisan Academy Commission, included recommendations for creating a more responsive government, a more resilient civic culture, and a renewed sense of commitment to democracy. With regard to national service, the report proposed increasing funding for service opportunities and establishing a cultural expectation of service; the goal is to make participating in a year of national service – broadly construed – a universal experience for all Americans.

While there has been an increase in financial support for service opportunities since the report’s publication, there is much more work to be done to generate broad enthusiasm for national service and engage people in the opportunities. To advance the Commission's recommendation and address this gap, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences partnered with organizational leaders in the national service field to conduct research on meeting this challenge and build demand for national service using data-driven approaches. 

National Service Public Opinion Research

To understand the factors that motivate Americans to participate in national service as well as the barriers that prevent them from seeking out or completing service opportunities, the Academy partnered with California Volunteers to convene five virtual focus groups with over sixty current and former service program participants in California in November and December 2022. Focus group participants were involved in service programs across the state - from San Diego to Oakland. Many were working at diverse volunteer placements including food banks, public schools, community centers, and local government agencies.

Feedback from these focus groups informed subsequent national service public opinion research conducted between May-August 2023, including focus groups with young adults and parents of young adults from across the political spectrum. A large-scale survey in California, and a parallel national sample was fielded in summer 2023. The goal of this research was to provide data-driven insights to help state service commissions improve recruitment for national service programs.

Key Findings

  • Some, including people of color and people who are first- or second-generation residents in the U.S., are initially more inclined to consider service, while others, including conservatives and those with higher incomes, are less likely. But messages improve attitudes toward service across all groups, with progressives aged 18 to 29 and moderate/conservative women most likely to increase in likelihood to consider participating. Several messages have broad appeal, and others could be targeted to specific groups.

  • Service is seen as positive for the country, but this outcome is not seen as a strong reason to participate. Three in four say it would be good for the country if more people participated in service year programs, and they are more likely than others to recommend service. But this belief is not closely related to likelihood to consider serving. 

  • Describing community benefits of service is more effective for recruitment than describing service opportunities as a national program.

  • Key motivations driving young adults to participate in service include helping people and communities, earning money for college and health insurance, and acquiring technical training and job certifications.

  • Key attitudes that increase the likelihood of participating in service include perceiving service as helping the service program participant achieve their goals and providing them with greater financial stability over the long term.

  • A mix of testimonials and traditional messages is most effective to paint a full picture of the value and benefits of service.

  • Certain messages are more effective for recruiting young adults into service programs, including:

    • “Giving back to your community” is more effective than “giving back to the country.”

    • “Helping your community” is more effective than “helping communities other than your own.”

    • “Money for college” is more effective than “education awards” or “loan deferment.”

    • “Meeting people different from you” is more effective than “meeting people similar to you.”

To learn more about the research and findings, please email Abhishek Raman

Expanding national service is an Our Common Purpose initiative.



Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

Danielle Allen, Stephen B. Heintz, and Eric P. Liu