Steve Culbertson – President and CEO of Youth Service America, a worldwide organization that encourages youth to solve community problems.
By Ryan Traynor, Editor-in-Chief
Steve Culbertson is the President and CEO of YSA (Youth Service America), a global nonprofit that helps young people find their voice, take action, and make an impact on vital community issues. YSA activates youth through special events, provides grants to underwrite their project solutions, offers training and technical assistance to make them (and their adult champions!) more successful, and gives them recognition in the public square. Youth for Literacy, a group I founded, is a partner with YSA in many of its programs, including Global Youth Service Day in April, the largest service event in the world. Groups like mine are able to coordinate and implement projects with YSA and magnify our scale, visibility, and impact. As President and CEO of YSA, Steve Culbertson is at the helm of an organization that changes millions of people’s lives by simply asking young people to be assets and resources in the world before they grow up.
Do you ever wonder why youth should be involved in service?
According to our theory of change, communities have problems and young people have solutions. The series of brain scans of adolescents by the National Institutes of Health showed that our brains undergo a massive reorganization between the ages of 12 and 25. The entire brain operates much faster with more sophistication, and youth are literally wired for new ideas, risk taking, and peer authority. Whether it’s starting Microsoft, Facebook, UPS, or the next solution to hunger and homelessness, teenagers and young adults are visionary, creative, and influential on each other.
Youth Service America has summarized “Why Youth Service?”
To expand its work, YSA created the Global Youth Service Network, a coalition of local, state, national, and global organizations in more than 100 countries, engaging children and youth to solve problems through volunteering, community service, service-learning, national service, social-entrepreneurism, and civic engagement.
Read more information about Youth Service America or sign up your youth group.
After joining YSA in 1996, Steve Culbertson expanded its work to include youth ages 5-25. Although the Internet was fairly new, he launched YSA.org later that year, and he continues to see technology as key to advancing YSA’s mission. Steve led the international expansion of National Youth Service Day into Global Youth Service Day in 2000, and YSA now coordinates GYSD activities in more than 100 countries on six continents. In 2008, he developed Semester of Service, an academic framework that links Martin Luther King Day of Service (January) to Global Youth Service Day (April) with service-learning projects of “Duration and Intensity.” In 2016 he launched a new YSA initiative to activate the world’s youth to take action to achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. It’s the first time in human history that every country has signed on to the same development goals.
Steve is a strong proponent for engaging young people at an early age to address unmet community needs, as a strategy for personal, academic, and community development. He believes that youth-voice and participation are critical to public policy, and healthy communities must intentionally engage youth at all levels. Four young people serve on YSA’s Board of Directors, voting on Steve’s salary.
Not only is Steve making an impact through his work, but he has a history as an active volunteer in many service organizations such as Rotary International, the Boy Scouts of America, the Episcopal Church, and the Lawrence Hall School. He is a Trustee for America’s Promise, and serves on the boards of both Camp Fire and Youth Service America.
Naming him twice to its list of the 50 most powerful and influential leaders in the sector, The NonProfit Times stated that “Culbertson has helped to position volunteering and young people as an issue and a national priority.” Let’s talk now with Steve Culbertson to gather his insights on how youth are changing the world.
(Amazing Kids!) AK: What are some skills youth can gain by volunteering?
(Steve Culbertson) SC: Volunteering allows kids the opportunity to build a unique, 21st century skillset that is vital to learning, resilience, thriving, and finding a good job. When they tackle tough challenges in their community, they learn skills such a critical thinking, creative problem-solving, collaboration and teamwork, and communication techniques to express themselves and advance their ideas. These skills will be expected of them in any job.
AK: How old do you believe youth should be when they begin volunteering?
SC: While most kids start school by age 5, I believe they can start participating even younger. Service is any selfless act done to benefit the people, plants, and animals around you, and that can start pretty young. As kids get older, their understanding improves of the larger, complex issues in our community and so does their impact!
AK: How is service-learning different than just volunteering?
SC: Volunteering can be any event where people come out and help others. Service-learning is similar to the frog dissection we did in 8th grade biology or the goals of my 11th grade chemistry lab. We all learn best by doing, so hands-on service projects are linked to academic outcomes. It allows youth to gain authentic experiences on any subject, from health, education, human service, and human rights to the environment, using real community issues and creating a cycle of doing and learning.
AK: Do you believe college admissions personnel put enough emphasis on volunteer involvement in their analysis of potential college students? If not, how do you think this can be changed?
SC: I think that college admissions officers value well-rounded students who have experience contributing to their community and the greater good. Higher education is an extraordinary privilege, and incoming students who already think and act as local, and increasingly as global, citizens, will naturally navigate college and thrive in life.
AK: You joined Youth Service America in 1996. What changes have you seen in the time you’ve been there?
SC: Since I joined YSA, there have been monumental changes to how we operate which tell an interesting history of not only YSA, but the entire social sector and the economy. First, technology has transformed everything. In 1996, grant applications were sent to us by mail, and we reached out to the media with faxed press releases and letters. Today, we punch “send” every Thursday, and our newsletter immediately goes out to more than 40,000 subscribers around the world. Technology allows us to offer many of our training programs virtually, 24 hours a day. Social media, allows us, and the youth we work with, to tell unfiltered stories of their service projects without relying on journalists and traditional media. When I joined YSA, we were focused domestically on building the national service movement with youth ages 18-25 in AmeriCorps.Today, our programs reach globally to engage children and youth, ages 5-25, from India to Indiana, and everywhere in between, because problems don’t have passports and the world is more interconnected. Starting this year we will align all the outcomes of our partners and youth globally to achieve the United Nation’s 17 new Sustainable Development Goals. For the first time in human history, every country on the planet has the same goals. It’s an exciting time to be alive. Today, we even have toolkits, such as KIDS IN ACTION, webinars, and even grants, for 5-12 year olds. Having Disney as one of our key global partners has its advantages!
AK: Can you describe Global Youth Service Day and why it has become the largest service event in the world? What changes do you see in this event in the future?
SC: Global Youth Service Day celebrates the impact that children and youth, 5-25, have on their communities 365 days of the year. Service happens at the local level, but kids today don’t see borders as we did. They have a global following of friends on Instagram, Snap Chat, Facebook, and Twitter. As communication lines open up across the planet, GYSD benefits from more and more communities seeing the huge value in including youth in tackling their most complex issues. Rather than dismissing kids as future leaders, or the hope of some distant tomorrow, communities realize that youth have valuable energy, commitment, idealism, and creativity today. Since the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are the same for every country, kids now share a global agenda no matter where they live. Imagine the immense opportunities for international collaboration, language learning, cultural exchanges, and sharing effective practices.
AK: How do you generate the sponsors to provide the grants which enable numerous projects to be conducted?
SC: Half the world’s population is under 25, so my favorite question when meeting with a potential sponsor is “What is your youth strategy?” Sometimes, I get a blank stare in response to my question, and I suggest that if you don’t have a youth strategy, you don’t have a strategy at all. Every company has an interest in seeing their employees, customers, and communities thriving. If a company wants to see progress on any issue area in any community, they need to invest in the youth of that community. Once we discuss the lofty goals that every company has for their community, it is easy for YSA and its sponsors to incorporate a youth strategy into that solution.
AK: When grant applications for volunteer projects are analyzed, what important items must be present to be considered for a grant?
SC: A grant application is really a solution to a problem young people want to solve, so they must include a creative, clearly thought out plan with S.M.A.R.T. Goals; defined as one that is specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time-bound. We also look for scale, visibility, and the prospective impact on the problem. Plans to engage public officials, and using social media, of course, are also important!
AK: Can you describe how the changes in social media and media methods have changed how nonprofits conduct and promote their projects?
SC: Youth today have more power in their smartphones than President Clinton had on his desk when he left office in 2001. Social media allows organizations like YSA and our constituents to have a conversation with people around the world. In the past, we relied on journalists and traditional media to tell a compelling story of social change on our behalf, and those kinds of stories are still of great value. But today, anyone with a smartphone can take a picture, video, or write a story of change for the world to see. We are living in exciting times where anyone, anywhere can be the catalyst for change by speaking up and sharing on social media!
AK: Who has been a mentor in your life that has helped you achieve your dreams?
SC: One of my board members is former Senator Harris Wofford, an advisor to both Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. He has taught me that talent is widely spread across race, gender, ethnicity, and geography, but opportunity is not. His life is a tribute to giving people opportunities to be players, instead of spectators or recipients. My work starts with a younger audience than his, but I think our hopes and dreams for them, and the world, are the same.
We are so grateful to Steve Culbertson for sharing his thoughts with our readers at Amazing Kids! Magazine. He has increased the quality and quantity of volunteer opportunities for young people worldwide. Hopefully this discussion has encouraged all of you to start a community project of your own.