After two long years of budget woes and service cuts, Mayor Nutter says that to keep Philly moving forward he could sure use the volunteer support of residents to pick up trash, tutor students and plant trees.
So winning a grant to pay for a city staffer to work with volunteers was pretty much the municipal equivalent of striking gold.
"It is hard for the city to take on this kind of position," Nutter said. "We're very, very excited."
Catie Wolfgang started several weeks ago as the city's new chief service officer. She will be employed for at least two years, with an $80,000 annual salary, through a $200,000 service grant the city won this year from the Rockefeller Foundation. Philly was among 10 cities to win a grant, part of a national push to increase service to help fight urban problems.
Wolfgang previously worked for the University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia, a youth program based at Temple University. She said she sees her role as trying to provide help and resources to volunteer groups, as well as expanding the number of Philadelphians who give back.
"We cannot solve the city's problems and become the great city that we want to be without everyone getting involved," said Wolfgang.
Among Wolfgang's goals is creating a Web site to direct Philadelphians to service opportunities. She also wants to put together a long-term plan that will lay out how volunteers can help Nutter's goal of creating a safer, healthier, better-educated city.
The issue of how best to use volunteers is not without controversy, especially when it comes to collaboration with the unionized city workforce. Wolfgang stressed that this new project was not an attempt to replace city workers, but rather to supplement their labor. A neighborhood town watch could help police, for example, or a volunteer reading program could improve student test scores.
"When you look at any large, seemingly intractable problem, there's a place for everybody in the solution," Wolfgang said. "We're not going to raise the graduation rate if we don't have adults working with kids in every area of their lives."
Philadelphia has a long tradition of community engagement, ranging from the Martin Luther King Day of Service to the City Year youth-service program to nonprofit advocacy groups that work on behalf of issues including homelessness, libraries or parks.
Todd Bernstein, founder of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service, which drew 70,000 people this year, said he thought the addition of a service officer would only improve the city.
"We have a terrific community of service organizations in Philadelphia, but until now there's been no one repository where any one citizen can learn about the full range of volunteer opportunities," Bernstein said.
Using volunteers to help cities combat urban problems is a popular idea. More than 80 municipalities have joined the coalition Cities of Service, started by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
But John Kretzman, a sociologist at Northwestern University who specializes in community development, stressed that government collaboration with volunteers works best when residents are driving the agenda.
"I'm a little wary always of citizen-engagement processes that are more top-down than bottom-up, but it's certainly possible for a central process to be supportive of, rather than directive of, [civic] engagement," Kretzman said. He noted that Seattle has successfully fostered community groups with grants and other support.
And Tom Pollak, of the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Urban Institute research group, said it would take time to know how well these efforts will work.
"Clearly, this country has no choice but to try to increase the level of community service any way we can," Pollak said. "How that will play out in the 2010s remains to be seen."