Federal Spotlight: Max Finberg
Max Finberg serves as the Director of AmeriCorps VISTA at the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that administers the AmeriCorps program and leads national service and volunteer initiatives for the nation. Here’s our Federal Spotlight interview with Max Finberg.
MC: How long have you been in Federal service and what is the main responsibility for your current role?
MF: At the end of this year, I will have served a total of 14 years in the Federal government in a variety of capacities. I started in the legislative branch on Capitol Hill, working with a member of Congress, followed by a position with the State Department. Next, I did a stint with the Department of Agriculture where I was able to do a detail with the White House. About nine months ago, I came over to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the Federal agency that administers the national service programs like AmeriCorps and Senior Corps.
Currently, I am the Director of AmeriCorps VISTA—Volunteers in Service to America. This is the program that was created as the domestic Peace Corps to combat poverty across the U.S. in 1965. In 1993, when CNCS and AmeriCorps were created, VISTA joined the AmeriCorps family.
Each year, CNCS supports about 8,000 AmeriCorps VISTA members throughout the country who serve over the course of the year in their various communities with different non-profit organizations, local government entities, tribal governments, and others—all focused on building the capacity to address poverty in their context. That could be housing. It could be employment. It could be economic opportunities. It could be around education. It could be around hunger. It varies a great deal, but all of them are focused more on building capacity rather than performing the direct service that other AmeriCorps members might do.
My responsibility is to make sure that opportunity exists for those who want to serve—allowing them to contribute to efforts that uplift communities and create additional opportunities for residents in these communities to escape poverty.
MC: Great. Could you talk a bit more about the VISTA program?
MF: AmeriCorps VISTA is open to all Americans 18 and over. While a majority of VISTA members get involved immediately following or a few years after college, there are individuals who may begin their service a year before, or while taking a break from, their higher education path.
In addition, many older Americans, such as retirees, may find that serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA member allows them to put a lifetime of skills and experience to use in a new way.
As director of the program, I’ve met a number of AmeriCorps VISTA members who have retired and decided to give back to their community in this way. We are excited it’s not just young people. The AmeriCorps VISTA programs provide an opportunity to springboard into public service in a variety of ways. That’s what the hallmark of this program has been for the entire 51 years of existence.
MF: Government has a role to play in serving the community and the country, and I have been privileged enough to be part of that. I’m excited by opportunities for taxpayer resources to be stewarded and used well in addressing the needs of so many communities.
Congress has supported this program in a bipartisan way for five decades now. It’s exciting to see the benefits—not just for the communities being served, but also for those who serve.
Recently, I was speaking with Aaron, an AmeriCorps VISTA member who shared this exact sentiment: “Without the AmeriCorps VISTA program, I may never have found the opportunity I needed to show myself and others that I have the potential for making a difference that can change the community.”
Comments like these are what keep me motivated and passionate about the work I do. They can also inspire others to go into public service and find opportunities to serve in this way.
MC: What is one of your greatest achievements?
MF: At the beginning of my career, a couple of years out of college, I started a VISTA program. It was a leadership development program focused on hunger, where we had sites all around the country working with food banks, shelters, and feeding programs.
It was exciting to see the difference that the members were able to make in those communities, and that program still exists today. The Congressional Hunger Fellows Program—part of the Congressional Hunger Center—started as an AmeriCorps VISTA program, and is now more than 20 years into training leaders. Having come full circle to serve as the Director of AmeriCorps VISTA has been an amazing and terrific experience. The fact that this program still exists and continues to do an excellent job training future leaders gives me a wonderful sense of accomplishment.
Another notable achievement comes from my time at the Department of Agriculture, where the Secretary of Agriculture asked me to lead one of his signature initiatives. This program focused on addressing rural poverty by creating growth and opportunity. I was able to expand a pilot program operating in six states to a nationwide initiative operating in more than 25 states around the country to further our investments into areas of concentrated poverty in rural America. That meant small-holder farmers getting more access to credit in order to sell their goods. It also meant that Native American tribes got support to add value to their products and sell them in different and better ways. Lastly, it created a variety of concrete ways that the USDA could target its investments and help address poverty in those rural areas. Eighty-five percent (85%) of persistent poverty areas are in rural America, so this effort was able to demonstrate that those partnerships and that added investment—more than $23 billion in those areas over the life of the initiative—has been a tremendous boost to those communities.
As a taxpayer, along with others interested in making sure that their resources are stewarded wisely, I see this program as a great example of government doing what it should in the right way.
MC: What advice would you share on making public service a career, since you seem to be passionate about it? Do you have any advice for people thinking about coming into service?
MF: Absolutely. Throughout my career, I have always been interested in mentoring. Just as I had people in my life who were there for me at the beginning, I want to do the same by helping others get started. A couple pieces of advice:
First, take a look at AmeriCorps VISTA at NationalService.gov. The VISTA program, like other AmeriCorps service experiences, is an opportunity to develop both hard and soft skills and to experience things you might not have gotten otherwise at the beginning stage of your career. Working in these roles, you often have far more responsibility and things to do than you can possibly complete, and it’s a great way of building a solid foundation at the start of your career.
Secondly, after a successful year of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA or after serving in the Peace Corps for two years, you get a year of non-competitive eligibility for Federal government positions. That is a great leg up in a competitive environment for folks interested in getting their start in public service with the Federal government. This program provides a great opportunity to do just that.
Additionally, the Pathways Program for recent graduates and the Presidential Management Fellows Program from the Office of Personnel Management are great ways to get your foot in the door for Federal government positions. We know that much of the current Federal workforce is eligible to retire in the next few years and there is a big push to make sure that we have a pipeline of qualified, committed, and dedicated folks coming into the Federal workforce. That’s a great way of setting yourself up to secure a role within the Federal government.
For young people who are questioning if public service is the right path for them, I’d ask them to consider the innovation taking place across government, just as it is in the society at large. This shift of focus has created opportunities for Millennials and young people throughout the Federal government to step in and take on the roles of innovators. I’ve always found ways to facilitate change, even in the midst of programs that have been around for a while and with individuals who have been doing things a certain way for a long time. It’s exciting to see and is a great opportunity for young people entering the workforce who are committed to giving back and serving the public in this way.
MF: I would ask them to give public service a second look—to realize that the problems we face as a society, the difficulties government is grappling with cannot be fixed by just wishing. I’d encourage them to roll up their sleeves and say, “I’m going to be part of the solution.” Public service provides an opportunity to make a difference.
I’ll close with one concrete example. After the shooting death and protests in Ferguson, Missouri, our agency asked, “Is there a way we can help with resources like AmeriCorps VISTA?” We found a community organization doing great things, such as trying to bridge the divides in that community and address some of their needs. They’ve been able to recruit AmeriCorps VISTAs from the community and elsewhere to address those hard, tough issues.
This is a powerful example of public service and government being very real and saying, “Not everything is hunky-dory, but we need to work together in partnership to address these issues.” It’s a great opportunity for young people to get engaged in a way that they might not have been thinking about otherwise.