What’s the Best Pathway to Public Service in the Recession?

America has a long history of giving back. Here’s how to do it now.

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Winston Churchill is worth quoting on many subjects, what with his trove of pungent observations on everything from the benefits of drinking alcohol to the vulnerabilities of his political rivals. But for all his war cries, Churchill’s wisdom can encompass the gentler side of life, as well. Such as his observation on public service: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” Churchill, in fact, often struggled to make a living—at least one commensurate with his extravagant tastes—but throughout his life he never diverged from a commitment to serving England.

How to serve. That sentiment animates this special issue on the things we do that aren’t only for a paycheck. The topic is broad; more than 60 million Americans are involved in volunteer efforts, and millions more are thriving in careers such as the military, teaching, and government service that, while remunerative, often return more in psychic rewards than cash. Even in a recession, philanthropies are giving away billions and becoming significant forces in reshaping society, sometimes controversially. We’re open to the controversy, as well. As our debate on the issue of national service makes clear, there are several ways to look at this push for service-oriented organizations. They deserve the same amount of clear-eyed discussion and scrutiny as any powerful institution.

[Read the U.S. News op-ed debate: Does the United States Need Compulsory National Service?]

In the pages that follow, we offer sanctimony-free stories, ideas, and advice to help you think through the array of choices, whether you’re looking to volunteer for a few hours a week or contemplating a college curriculum that might lead to a career in public service. Or a second career. Nonprofit work is a terrific option for retirement-age baby boomers, that vast, educated generation that’s going to need some place to put its energy. America has a long history of giving back, and it looks like that tendency will only grow.

Not that service is only about sacrifice. Federal jobs, for instance, have increasingly competitive pay packages when you consider the benefits and security—and who is not considering benefits and security in this current climate? In fact, who isn’t considering that there are actual, available jobs someplace? Due to retirements and expanded government spending (there’s that controversy again), there will be hundreds of thousands of open positions over the next few years. Teacher salaries have also risen and can provide a comfortable living in return for a valuable service. Doing good and doing well at the same time opens up some interesting opportunities for bright graduates who’d rather not sell collateralized debt obligations on Wall Street.

[Read more about the deficit and national debt.]

Of course, however those gains were gotten, Wall Street success has long been a major engine of philanthropy. Former investment banker Pete Peterson tells what it’s like to sign onto the Bill Gates-Warren Buffett pledge asking the super-rich to donate most of their estates to foundations. Peterson set aside a billion dollars.

We also asked for firsthand observations on their motivation and experiences from some distinguished public officials, including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, governors Jennifer Granholm (Michigan) and Bev Perdue (North Carolina), and former senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam vet and successful businessman who left the Senate to embark on yet another career in the nonprofit world.

And, modestly, we think we’ve done our part by putting this package together. Helping people make decisions is a service we’ve long provided. Even if we do get paid a little bit for it.

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