Service Credit Banking

Over recent years, far greater attention has been given to the role of volunteers in providing social services to their neighbors and members of their communities. For example, in his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in May 2001, President Bush said, "We must move to the third stage of combating poverty in America. Our society must enlist, equip and empower idealistic Americans in the works of compassion that only they can provide." Since the 1980s, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been looking for ways to encourage people to volunteer their services to those in need. Faith in Action, which funds interfaith coalitions of caregivers, is the Foundation's single largest program; it was recently reauthorized for $100 million over a seven-year period. (The program was discussed in the 1998–1999 volume of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Anthology.)

The Foundation also has given priority to expanding and improving long-term care services for elderly people, particularly those who are frail. These include three programs, described by A.E. Benjamin and Rani Snyder elsewhere in this volume of the Anthology, to enable disabled people to select and manage their own services, and a number of programs to make long-term care insurance more readily available to seniors.

The Foundation's interest in increasing voluntarism and improving long-term care for frail elderly people came together in the two programs examined in this chapter by Susan Dentzer, a journalist and the national health correspondent for public television's "The NewsHour." The programs experimented with an idea called "service credit banking," in which people volunteering to provide services to needy individuals would receive chits in a paper bank that entitled them to receive services in the future if and when the need arose. The simple quid pro quo approach to encouraging voluntarism was the brainchild of a social activist, attorney and economist—himself a senior citizen—who had the drive to translate an idea into action.

The programs did not work out as hoped. In her analysis, Dentzer explores whether service credit banking—as demonstrated in the projects funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—was a good idea that was badly timed or implemented or whether it was simply a flawed idea. Different observers may reach different conclusions. Whatever the conclusion reached, the service credit banking programs did offer some lessons that informed subsequent efforts of the Foundation to encourage voluntarism.