Chapter 1: Background & Purpose



Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name][comment:title] AmeriCorps VISTA has a rich history and legacy. The program was first envisioned by President John F. Kennedy when, in 1962, he commissioned a task force to explore the creation of a national service program modeled after the Peace Corps, whose purpose would be to assist Americans afflicted by poverty. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson realized that vision and created what was then known as Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA).
In 1965, the first VISTA members began serving in migrant farm worker camps in California, the hollows of eastern Kentucky, and the urban neighborhoods of Hartford, Connecticut. Since then, more than 220,000 VISTA members have served in all 50 states and U.S. Territories. AmeriCorps VISTA members serve in tribal, rural, suburban, and urban communities. Poverty exists in many forms, which is why VISTA’s model is driven directly by communities in need. Whether that need is expanding job-training services for out of work coal miners in Kentucky, recruiting disadvantaged youth for computer literacy and coding classes in Minneapolis, or combatting homelessness among our veterans, AmeriCorps VISTA members help others while gaining valuable skills for their careers.
“This is your jobto guide the young, to comfort the sick, to encourage the downtrodden, to teach the skills which may lead to a more satisfying and a more rewarding life. On your idealism and on your success rests much of our hope for the final elimination of poverty in our American life.”

- President Lyndon B Johnson in his remarks to the first VISTA class in 1964.

In 1994, VISTA became a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, founded by President Bill Clinton. The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) is a federal agency that engages millions of Americans in service through national service programs such as AmeriCorps and Senior Corps and by leading volunteer initiatives for the nation.  In 2009 The Serve America Act was signed and expanded the national service programs administered by CNCS.
The purpose of AmeriCorps VISTA, as originally authorized in the Domestic Volunteer Service Act (DVSA) of 1973, as amended, is:
To strengthen and supplement efforts to eliminate and alleviate poverty ... in the United States by encouraging and enabling persons from all walks of life, all geographic areas, and all age groups, including low-income individuals ... to perform meaningful and constructive volunteer service in agencies, institutions, and situations where the application of human talent and dedication may assist in the solution of poverty and poverty related problems.
The Domestic Volunteer Service Act describes three specific objectives of the program to achieve this purpose:
  1. To strengthen local agencies and organizations to carry out the purpose of the program
  2. To encourage volunteer service at the local level
  3. To generate the commitment of private sector resources
The AmeriCorps VISTA program endorses three basic assumptions:
  • Private citizens can contribute on a voluntary basis to meet the challenges confronting low-income communities.
  • The skills and energies of AmeriCorps VISTA members are used most effectively when the members live and work in the low-income communities they serve.
  • The full-time personal involvement of AmeriCorps VISTA members brings an added dimension to local public and private nonprofit organizations that work to develop lasting solutions to the problems facing low-income communities.

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Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name][comment:title] AmeriCorps VISTA achieves its mission by assigning members to sponsoring organizations to build the capacity of those organizations to lift communities out of poverty.  AmeriCorps VISTA members mobilize community resources, engage individuals in local community service, and increase the capacity of organizations to manage effective anti-poverty programs. It is crucial to the concept of local self-reliance that sponsoring organizations plan for the eventual phase out of AmeriCorps VISTA members and for the absorption of their functions by other facets of the organization or community.
Those who designed the VISTA program envisioned that the community members served by AmeriCorps VISTA programs, to the maximum extent practicable, would participate in planning, developing, and implementing programs. In coordination with CNCS State Offices and sponsoring organizations, the AmeriCorps VISTA program aims to ensure our service partners - sponsors, beneficiaries, and other community contacts - meaningfully participate in our projects. 
Over the course of VISTA’s more than 50 year legacy, the types of projects and the communities served have varied greatly and will continue to change as the program evolves. The idea of collaborative, grassroots, and sustainable development, however, has not and will not change as this is the heart of AmeriCorps VISTA's anti-poverty mission. Four core principles provide the framework of all AmeriCorps VISTA projects:
1. Ending poverty
  • An AmeriCorps VISTA project's goal addresses helping individuals and communities move out of poverty, rather than making poverty more tolerable through short-term services.
2. Empowering communities
  • A VISTA project engages residents of low-income communities in planning, development, and implementation of the project.
3. Building capacity
  • VISTA members strengthen, expand, and increase the reach of anti-poverty organizations and programs by working on projects with staff and volunteers, rather than directly with people in need.
4. Creating sustainable solutions
  • VISTA members build capacity for organizations to address poverty long after the VISTA members are gone. VISTA members develop systems, relationships, and knowledge which they transfer to the organization and the community to sustain over the long-term.


AmeriCorps VISTA members serve under the auspices of a sponsoring organization (often referred to as an AmeriCorps VISTA sponsor). A sponsoring organization may be a non-profit organization, educational institution, tribal, or public agency that is committed to creating solutions to problems affecting low-income communities. The organization partners both with the low-income communities it serves and with AmeriCorps VISTA.

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name][comment:title] The sponsoring organization manages AmeriCorps VISTA resources, including the members and sometimes grant funds, and provides the support necessary to achieve project goals. In some cases, the sponsoring organization shares the cost of AmeriCorps VISTA members by committing to pay the living allowance of one or more of their members.

Along with the project plan, a sponsoring organization develops a Volunteer Assignment Description (VAD), essentially a work plan, for each member. Successfully completing the tasks in the VAD leads to attaining the goals of the project plan. The sponsor reports to AmeriCorps VISTA on the progress made in meeting its goals, in addition to reporting on the impact the VISTA members have had serving at its site(s).  In support of the VISTA member, the sponsor provides supervision, orientation, professional development, and logistical support.


The community plays a critical role as both the advisor and beneficiary of the AmeriCorps VISTA project. Community may be defined geographically (e.g., a neighborhood), demographically (e.g., school children), or by affinity (e.g., individuals seeking food security). Given the diversity of the communities in which members serve, the level of involvement and role a community plays in planning, developing, and implementing programs is equally diverse. 
Community representatives, with varying levels of input, work with a sponsoring organization to develop a project. Community needs, desires, and priorities shape the project's goals and objectives, which determine the members' assignment descriptions.
At a project implementation level, community members directly and indirectly work with AmeriCorps VISTA members. As partners, colleagues, and neighbors, the AmeriCorps VISTA member and the community members share and transfer information, skills, attitudes, and behaviors. This exchange is based on a mutual partnership and mutual learning for the transfer to be successful, and it is the basis of sustainable, grassroots community development. Ultimately, all AmeriCorps VISTA projects aim to have community partners assume responsibility of the project’s activities.


AmeriCorps VISTA members make a full-time, one-year commitment to alleviate poverty in a particular community. Their role in alleviating poverty is to mobilize community resources, increase the capacity of the low-income community to achieve its goals, and ensure that the activities initiated or expanded as an AmeriCorps VISTA member are sustained by the community.  


A VISTA member’s assignment depends on the needs of the community being served and the issue(s) being addressed by the project to which the member is assigned. The VISTA Assignment Description (VAD) provides an overview of the member’s activities and duties as well as a description of how and when to accomplish them.  
Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name][comment:title] AmeriCorps VISTA members build the capacity of individuals, organizations, and communities. The sponsor, in coordination with the CNCS State Office, works with the community to establish goals and to develop a plan to address identified needs. The member serves as a catalyst and change agent, assisting in creating or expanding the sponsor’s programs and mobilizing community resources.
A member assignment does not include the delivery of individual services to clients, that is, "direct service," nor activities more appropriately performed by the sponsoring organization's administrative support staff, except in very limited circumstances. Limited circumstances include situations in which (1) a brief period of direct service is necessary to understand the service elements of the sponsoring organization, (2) direct service is incidental to the time and effort in carrying out the primary responsibilities of the member assignment, or (3) direct service is necessary for training purposes.   
Also, in general, an AmeriCorps VISTA member may not assume, accept, or retain positions of leadership, or become identified with a particular faction or group, or with a partisan or nonpartisan political group in the communities in which he/she serves. The assumption of such positions by a member would hinder the community's ability to develop its own leadership capacity.


Each AmeriCorps VISTA member has a supervisor responsible for managing the project. The member receives direction and guidance from a supervisor who works for the sponsoring organization, rather than the CNCS State Office or AmeriCorps VISTA Headquarters. AmeriCorps VISTA members serving with intermediary sponsors may have a site supervisor at their host site organization as well as an overall project supervisor at the sponsoring organization.
An AmeriCorps VISTA member is not an employee of the sponsoring organization, nor of the host site if serving with an intermediary organization. A member is also not an employee of CNCS, AmeriCorps VISTA, or the federal government, except for very specific purposes (see "Unemployment Compensation" section in Chapter 14) outlined in the Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973. An AmeriCorps VISTA member is a federal resource to a local organization.


AmeriCorps VISTA Leaders assist sponsoring organizations and VISTA members in achieving program objectives and developing new project activities and sources of community support. Leaders are sometimes assigned to larger projects or to specific regions. As such, not all projects will have VISTA Leaders. 
VISTA Leaders are former full-time VISTAs, AmeriCorps members, or Peace Corps volunteers who have demonstrated exemplary skills and leadership in community service.
AmeriCorps VISTA Leaders are not permitted to perform administrative or supervisory functions for their sponsoring organizations or for CNCS State Offices. They do not supervise other AmeriCorps VISTA members. Instead, they provide support and coordination for members to increase the project’s impact. In return for fulfilling this role, Leaders are eligible to receive a small increase in their living allowance. (See Chapter 10 for further details about the AmeriCorps VISTA Leaders Program.)


The VISTA Member Support Unit (VMSU) provides a full array of administrative support to VISTA candidates, members, and alumni. This support includes assistance with the member application, enrollment forms, training events, active service, end-of-service, and post-service.
For questions about completing forms, or issues pertaining to benefits, including travel reimbursement, living allowance, and end-of-service awards, contact the VMSU for assistance through the National Service Hotline at 800.942.2677 or submit a request online to the VMSU at


Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name][comment:title] The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) has field staff working throughout the United States. There are CNCS State Offices representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. Some offices are responsible for multiple states and territories.
CNCS State Office staff provide outreach, program development, technical assistance, monitoring, and evaluation in support of CNCS's national service network, in addition to AmeriCorps VISTA member support. Staff assist sponsoring organizations in refining project goals and objectives, in determining if the proposed project aligns with the AmeriCorps VISTA program mission, and in ensuring that a self-sustaining activity will be achieved within the low-income community.
CNCS staff approve a sponsoring organization's project plan and AmeriCorps VISTA member applications, arranges for the VISTA candidates to attend the Pre-Service Orientation (PSO) and for supervisors to attend the Supervisors' Orientation (SO). After members are assigned to a project, the CNCS State Office supports the sponsoring organization as they provide training, professional development, and technical assistance to members. Moreover, the state office is a resource for AmeriCorps VISTA policy and procedure. If an issue cannot be resolved between a supervisor and a member, the sponsor should contact the appropriate state office.  A list of CNCS State Offices is available here:
CNCS State Office staff conduct periodic project visits and review Project Progress Reports to monitor the sponsoring organization's use of AmeriCorps VISTA members toward achieving the project's goals and objectives.


AmeriCorps VISTA is headquartered in Washington, DC. This office, in consultation with CNCS State Offices, determines goals, policy, administrative procedures, and budgetary requirements for effective program operation.
The AmeriCorps VISTA Headquarters Office performs the following tasks:
  • Monitors progress toward achieving national program goals and priorities
  • Allocates AmeriCorps VISTA resources among the states
  • Ensures CNCS staff and sponsoring organizations adhere to AmeriCorps VISTA policies and procedures
  • Researches and shares effective program models
  • Develops and implements training, professional development, and technical assistance for members, Leaders, and sponsors
  • Administers member support services, such as health care, child care, payments and reimbursements for living allowances and travel, and enrollment for the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award or end-of-service stipend
  • Oversees national recruitment, marketing, and outreach efforts to attract potential members and provides training and technical assistance to assist sponsors in local recruitment practices. 

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