Community service is a donated service or activity that is performed by someone or a group of people for the benefit of the public or its institutions. Performing community service is not the same as volunteering, since it is not always done voluntarily. It may be done for a variety of reasons:
- governments may require it as a part of citizenship requirements, typically in lieu of military service;
- courts may demand it in lieu of, or in addition to, other criminal justice sanctions;
- school may mandate it to meet the requirements of a class, such as in the case of service-learning or to meet the requirements of graduation.
High school graduation and community work
Many educational jurisdictions in the United States need students to do community service hours to graduate from high school. In some high schools in Washington State, for example, students must finish 200 hours of community service to get a diploma. Some of the Washington school districts, including Seattle Public Schools, differentiate between community service and "service learning," requiring students to demonstrate that their work has contributed to their education. If a student in high school is taking an AVID course, community service is needed.
Other high schools don't require community service hours for graduation, but still see an impressive number of students get involved in their community. For example, in Palo Alto, CA, students at Palo Alto High School log about 45,000 hours of community service every year.  As a result, the school's College and Career Center awards about 250-300 students the President's Volunteer Service Award every year for their hard work.
Though technically not a requirement, many colleges make community service an unofficial requirement for acceptance. However, some colleges prefer work experience over community service, and some require that their students also continue community service for some specific number of hours to graduate. Some academic honor societies, along with some fraternities and sororities in North America, require community service to join and others require each member to continue doing community service.
In this form of community service, people convicted of crimes are required to perform community services or to work for agencies in the sentencing jurisdiction either entirely or partly in lieu of other judicial remedies and sanctions, such as incarceration or fines.
For instance, a fine may be reduced in exchange for a prescribed number of hours of community service. The court may allow the convict to choose their community service, which then must be documented by "credible agencies", such as non-profit organizations, or may mandate a specific service.
Sometimes the sentencing is specifically targeted to the convict's crime, for example, a litterer may have to clean a park or roadside, or a drunk driver might appear before school groups to explain why drunk driving is a crime. Also, a sentence allowing for a broader choice may nonetheless disallow certain services that the offender would reasonably be expected to perform anyway; for example, a convicted lawyer might be specifically prohibited from counting pro bono legal services.
Most jurisdictions in the United States have programs by which the court may require minor offenders to perform work for city or county agencies under the supervision of the police or sheriff department, often on weekends, as an alternative to confinement in jail. Jail and prison inmates are also typically used for labor either in the jail or at outside work that benefits society, such as in light manufacturing, repair work, office work, on labor camps or farms, on chain gangs or on land conservation projects. This is, however, more properly considered a form of penal labor than community service.
At least part of the philosophy behind this kind of sentencing is that providing a service to the community is more beneficial than punishment for its own sake. Through community service, the community sees a benefit while saving the costs associated with incarceration of the convict and having the work carried out by paid staff. It is also thought to be a way to educate convicts on what constitutes ethically acceptable behavior.
Some employers involve their staff in some kind of community service programming, such as with the United Way of America. This may be completely voluntary or a condition of employment, or anything in between.
In addition, approximately 40% of Fortune 500 companies offer volunteer grant programs where companies provide monetary donations to nonprofit organizations in recognition of their employee's volunteerism (Ex. $500 volunteer grant after 25 hours of community service).
Community service in the United States is often similar to that in Canada. In Europe and Australia, community service is an option for many criminal sentences as an alternative to incarceration. In the United Kingdom, community service is now officially referred to by the Home Office as more straightforward "compulsory unpaid work". Compulsory unpaid work includes up to 300 hours of activities, such as conservation work, cleaning up graffiti, or working with a charity. The Howard League for Penal Reform (the world's oldest prison reform organization) is a prominent advocate for the increased use of community sentencing in order to reduce the prison population and improve the rehabilitation of those sentenced for criminal activity.
Starting in 2010, Danish High School students will receive a special diploma if they complete at least 20 hours of voluntary work.
The International Baccalaureate program requires 50 hours of community service, together with a written reflection on the service performed, to fulfill the requirement of 150 hours of CAS (Creativity, Action, Service) and receive an IB Diploma.
In the United Kingdom people are sentenced to community service if they have claimed state benefits for longer than 6 months. The scheme is dubbed "the community action programme" and users are required to work (a literary formality to avoid employment minimum/non payment laws) in what is referred to as "mandatory volunteering" as part of a so-called "work based activity". Subjects can be required to work for as much as six months at forty hours per week for as little as sixty pounds sterling per week or face strict benefit sanctions of up to three years.
Personal benefits of serving
Community service also allows those participating to reflect on the difference they are making in society. Some participants of a community service project may find themselves gaining a greater understanding of their roles in the community, as well as the impact of their contributions towards those in need of service. Because community service outlets vary, those who serve are exposed to many different kinds of people, environments, and situations.
With each new community service project, some participants may gain insightful experience in a variety of areas. Participants may also internalize the information that they found personally insightful for future use. While simply performing community service is valuable to the recipients, those serving often find it beneficial to pause and reflect on how they are changing society for the better. Schools often take students on community service projects in order for them to gain a greater understanding of how their individual actions affect the well being of the public. Participants may find that the giving of themselves to the public good may result in a more solidified view of self and purpose.
Those involved in community service learning may also find that after serving the community for an extended period of time, they have an advantage in real-world experience. Eventually, the skills and knowledge obtained while working with the community may be applied in future areas of work. Community service may also increase a participant's social connectivity. Because most community service opportunities allow others to interact and work with other individuals, this service may help volunteers network and connect with others towards a common goal.
Choosing the right strategy
As pointed out by de Tocqueville, America, in sharp contrast with other developed countries, has had a formidable ability to form associations. Civilians have a unique desire and aptitude to organize themselves apart from government to address the needs in their communities. But in order for an effort to have the desired positive effect on society, it is indispensable that clear analyzing and purposeful strategizing are done. The root causes of the problems to be addressed must be identified and kept in mind throughout the elaborating and implementation of each movement or project. Individuals, like neighborhoods, cannot enjoy a permanent change if it is not an inner one. And the greatest form of community service is encouraging the members of the group to do just that.
Abraham Kuyper was an advocate of the sphere sovereignty, which honors the independence and autonomy of the “intermediate bodies” in society, such as schools, press, business, the arts, etc. He champions the right of every community to operate its own organizations and manage its own groups. With the foundational belief that a parent knows what his child really needs and that the local people are more capable of helping their fellow locals. Those who are in agreement with his views perceive community service as a “trampoline”, which seeks to launch their targets to better employments and lifestyles, avoiding at all costs the encouragement of destructive decision making for the mal-established goals caused by poorly developed community service efforts.
Amy L. Sherman, in her book Restorers of Hope, suggests that community service planning should be made with the valuable opinion of the local residents, since they have firsthand knowledge of the inside realities of their community's current state. Making them a part of the movement, change or project creates in the members of the community a sense of belonging and hope. Joint effort: relationships – these make the difference.
- Community building
- Community development
- Community economic development
- Community practice
- List of community topics
- List of awards for volunteerism and community service
- The Howard League for Penal Reform
- Volunteer Centres Ireland
- Volunteer travel
- Working Saturday
- High School Graduation Requirements Classes of 2008-Beyond, Seattle Public Schools, G10-00B, revised September 1, 2004
- "FAQ - Our database of corporate giving programs". Doublethedonation.com. Retrieved 2012-10-21.
- How we manage offenders, National Offender Management Service
- Students to get recognition for volunteer work, Danish Ministry of Education, January 8, 2010
- Creativity, action, service (CAS), Diploma Programme curriculum—core requirements, homepage of the International Baccalaureate Organization
- DWP information page
- 366 Community Service Ideas
- Perez, Shivaun, "Assessing Service Learning Using Pragmatic Principles of Education: A Texas Charter School Case Study" (2000). Applied Research Projects. Texas State University. Paper 76.