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Volunteering to Tackle Nashville’s Needs

By Mayor Karl Dean, Nashville

Tennessee has long been known as the “volunteer state,” a moniker that Nashville residents are proud of.

The city of Nashville experienced a historic flood in 2010 – the fourth-largest non-hurricane disaster in U.S. history. More than 10,000 private properties were affected, and the city suffered over $2.1 billion in damages. To meet this unprecedented challenge, we leveraged all resources available to us – including the willingness of our fellow citizens to lend their time and talents to rebuild and revitalize our community. The flood may have brought challenges, but it also brought opportunities. It brought our city together.

Nashville’s ability to respond and recover was aided, in large part, by a culture of service that we had adopted through our involvement in Cities of Service and our city’s own Impact Nashville.

In 2009, I was proud to partner with New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and 15 other mayors from across the country to found Cities of Service, a bipartisan coalition of mayors committed to using innovative citizen service strategies to tackle pressing local challenges. To date, more than 160 mayors representing nearly 50 million Americans are members of the coalition – and the movement is growing.

Today, Cities of Service will announce a new round of grants available through the multi-million dollar Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. The Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund is designed to double-down on success and help more mayors use citizen service to address local needs. In an era of tightening resources and budgets, the Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund enables cities to tackle their most pressing challenges in a cost effective manner, by directing citizen volunteers to where their help is needed most.

With the support of Cities of Service, we launched Impact Nashville in 2010, our city’s first-ever high-impact service plan. The plan has two priorities – improving the environment and improving public education. In the years since, we have benefited from having a dedicated focus on aligning the efforts of community volunteers with the high priority work that we need to get done. And as it turned out, no challenge was more daunting than recovering from the flood.

Thousands of Nashvillians united to make a measurable impact on our city’s flood recovery efforts. With support from Cities of Service, since September 2010, more than 21 miles of waterways have been assessed and cleaned, and over 65 tons of debris and trash have been removed. Recognizing that clean-up efforts would only bring us so far, we also began to rebuild, but this time, smarter. More than 3,000 trees and 230 rain gardens have been planted in strategic locations to help prevent future flooding. And we’ve integrated energy efficient upgrades into the rebuilding of more than 80 residential properties damaged by the flood, leading to a 762,000-pound reduction in these buildings’ carbon emissions.

With the support of a Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund grant in 2012, we launched “Change for Chestnut” to improve energy-efficiency and to lower utility costs for low-income homeowners in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Nashville. By the end of this year, more than 50 home energy retrofits will be completed. We still have a lot of work to do, but we have come a long way since 2010, thanks to a well thought out plan and smart deployment of resources.

It is this focus on impact that makes the Cities of Service “impact volunteering” model unique – rather than just measuring the number of volunteers and the hours they spend working, like many traditional community volunteer programs, the model targets community needs, uses best practices and sets clear outcomes and measures to gauge progress.

Government leveraging volunteers is often an underutilized strategy, and most efforts have lacked focus and accountability. The Cities of Service impact volunteering model is changing that. The model equips mayors with the tools to utilize citizens as actual resources to help solve community problems.

As mayor, I’m proud of the contribution that Impact Nashville has made to our city, and the thousands of citizen volunteers that have invested their time, energy and commitment to our city’s cause. The impact and progress we have made would not have been possible without them or the support Cities of Service.

Karl Dean is the sixth Mayor of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.