While Torie Osborn makes a case in this issue of Blue Avocado for the fresh start she thinks nonprofits can and should make in the wake of the Obama campaign, Carol Stone argues that we would be well served to appreciate nonprofit strides made since 2003 under President George W. Bush. What do you think?
I will always be grateful to George W. Bush for publicly putting volunteering on the national map.
President Bush should be credited for making a dramatic impact on the nonprofit sector through increased volunteering. While many of our presidents have promoted programs that would slowly change the volunteer fabric of the nation, President Bush went further.
In 1981 when I became president/CEO of Volunteer Center Orange County in southern California, the volunteer recruitment business was dreadfully grim and slow.
To give you an example: The Fluor Corporation, with the only active corporate employee volunteer program in our county, earmarked a grant of $10,000 if I could sign up at least 10 other companies to start employee volunteer programs. As I began talking to these other corporations, I soon learned that they were ONLY interested in making money – not in supporting their employees in service to their communities. Volunteering in those days was definitely NOT at the top of priority lists. In fact, the women’s movement was encouraging Lady Bountiful to find a “real” job because giving away one’s talents as a volunteer wasn’t cool.
In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush issued a challenge to all Americans to make time to help their neighbors, communities, and our nation through service. He called on each person to dedicate at least 4,000 hours – or two years – to service over the course of their lives.
Today the nation’s 350 volunteer centers encourage people across a given community to work together to meet local needs. The centers reach out to those concerned with a wide scope of issues and dedicated to many types of activities.
Americans have answered the president’s call to service and more Americans than ever before are volunteering both at home and abroad.
The President Spurs a Turnaround
Having the president serve as a spokesman for volunteering made a huge impact on my volunteer center. Companies began to see that encouraging their employees to volunteer was good for business – a commitment to serve was increasingly becoming the “in” thing to do. Suddenly we had companies financially supporting volunteer centers like never before. Companies sought our help to launch employee volunteer programs.
Schools began adding a volunteer requirement to their graduation requirements. Volunteer centers became the experts in service learning projects they would incorporate in their classrooms. Community collaborators indicated that they could not function effectively without the inclusion of volunteer centers to mobilize the new volunteers they would need for their new initiatives. Nonprofits began signing up for training programs on how to manage volunteers more effectively.
Individuals who had never thought about volunteering were now champions, donating funds and getting their colleagues and neighbors to sign up too.
At last people in the private and public sectors understood what volunteer center directors and President Bush had always known – volunteers are America’s richest natural resource. Volunteers are a necessary component in creating healthy communities throughout the U.S. They are the progenitors of most community nonprofits, and without them, many groups – even those that are well funded and can count on scores or even hundreds of paid staff – would be unable to reach communities effectively.
At Last – the Data We Needed
Even though we always believed volunteers were a critical element in addressing serious social problems, we had no empirical data. The Bush administration agreed that comprehensive research and analysis of volunteering and service was critical. His administration launched the first federal Annual Volunteering Survey and interactive website in 2003. Called Volunteering in America, it was the first study to give a detailed breakdown of America’s volunteering habits and patterns by geographical area, offering information critical to understanding the volunteering behaviors of citizens in each state and major U.S. city. This study also showed that between September 2001 and September 2005, volunteering increased from 59 million to 65.4 million Americans.
Today, the number of Americans volunteering still remains high – at 61 million. Americans served 8.1 billion volunteer hours in 2007, contributing $158 billion to the national economy through their service. The data also validated what we always knew: that communities with high levels of citizen engagement are better equipped to solve some of the key challenges facing our society today, such as risky behaviors among youth, community disaster preparedness, hunger, and homelessness.
In January 2003, President Bush formed the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation to recognize the important contributions Americans of all ages were making within their communities through service and civic engagement. The council successfully created a nationwide, one-stop, volunteer opportunity database at www.volunteer.gov. It also established a program that has recognized more than 662,000 Americans with the President’s Volunteer Service Award. (To learn more about the award or to register your organization for the program, please visit www.presidentialserviceawards.gov.)
Expansion of Federal Volunteer Programs
In addition, the Bush administration increased support to our two cornerstone national service programs – the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps – and added new programs:
- Volunteers for Prosperity, which has allowed more Americans to contribute their skills internationally;
- Take Pride in America, relaunched to give citizens a role in preserving our public lands; and
- USA Citizen Corps, whose volunteers serve in 2400 communities.
As a White House office, the USA Freedom Corps coordinates volunteer service initiatives across the federal government and through a national network of state, local, and tribal Citizen Corps Councils. They implement the Citizen Corps programs to increase volunteer citizen participation, including through programs such as Volunteers in Police Service, USAonWatch/Neighborhood Watch, Medical Reserve Corps, Fire Corps, and Community Emergency Response Teams.
Thanks to the president’s leadership and belief in the power of individuals to make positive change in the lives of people in need, hundreds of thousands of new volunteers have touched someone’s life and made a difference during his administration. He has brought the importance of volunteering to new heights, through increased visibility and recognition. For that great gift, I am truly thankful to President George W. Bush.
Carol Stone, president of The Stone Nonprofit Consulting Group in Orange County, California, served as president and CEO of the Volunteer Center Orange County for 25 years.