After Two Tough Years, New Points of Light Charity Emerges

This piece originally ran Oct. 15, 2009 in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

When Michelle Nunn was just out of college in 1989, she became what she calls the "glorified intern-slash-executive director" of a volunteer organization in Atlanta that was created by a dozen people who chipped in $50 each.

Today, Ms. Nunn presides over a nonprofit group with a $30-million-plus budget and more than 250 affiliates across the country — and she is one of the most visible faces of the country's burgeoning movement to promote volunteerism and national service.

On October 16, her group, the Points of Light Institute, will take center stage at an event at Texas A&M University, in College Station, that will unite President Obama and President George H.W. Bush to commemorate 20 years of activity following Mr. Bush's utterance of the phrase that gave the group its name. "I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the nation, doing good," he said in his 1989 inaugural address.

Dual Histories

The Points of Light Foundation was created in 1990 as a nonprofit organization in Washington to help promote the spirit of volunteerism expounded by Mr. Bush.

Just over two years ago, the group merged with the HandsOn Network, a national volunteer organization that was headed by Ms. Nunn. The two somewhat rivalrous organizations had grown up alongside each other, both seeking to get people to volunteer to help solve social problems — but with different approaches and different personalities.

Ms. Nunn took the helm of the merged organization and tackled the daunting task of melding the two cultures . She had to trim jobs, establish a new headquarters in Atlanta, and adjust to a decision by Congress to eliminate what was then a $10-million annual allocation to the Points of Light group.

"It was a difficult two years," Ms. Nunn says. "I feel great about the current position, but it was hard to get here."

While guiding the merged operation, Ms. Nunn also operates on a bigger stage. Points of Light is one of the key players in ServiceNation, a coalition of more than 200 groups that is promoting volunteerism and national service, and in Reimagining Service, a new group that plans to issue guidelines about how to strengthen the ability of nonprofit organizations to manage volunteers.

Ms. Nunn, the unassuming daughter of Sam Nunn, the former Democratic senator from Georgia, has been involved in volunteer work her entire career. She helped build HandsOn Atlanta into one of the country's largest volunteer organizations, while also helping to build the national HandsOn Network, where she served as chief executive before the merger.

In her new capacity as chief executive of the Points of Light Institute, she is drawing from two different histories.

The Points of Light Foundation was nurtured from the start by the federal government. It got an annual allocation from the Corporation for National and Community Service, helped manage some of that agency's programs, and administered the President's Volunteer Service Award program, which was created by President George W. Bush in 2003 (a task the merged organization still handles).

The group also sponsored conferences, offered training and other help to its network of volunteer centers, and recognized volunteers through a Daily Point of Light award.

Meanwhile, the HandsOn Network — formerly known as CityCares — was a scrappier organization that built a network of 68 "action centers" across the country to help nonprofit groups and schools create community-service projects. The centers actually designed and managed their own projects.

That gave HandsOn a real advantage, says Judith A.M. Smith, a member of the board of the Points of Light Institute. Ms. Smith heads a volunteer center in Jacksonville, Fla., that had affiliations with both groups before they merged. While the Points of Light "connector model" accomplished good things, she says, it would "always give away the volunteers to somebody else." Raising money was hard, she says, because "where the volunteer's heart goes, the pocketbook goes."

Neil Bush, son of the first President Bush and chairman of the Points of Light board, puts it more bluntly: "The Points of Light Foundation, honestly, being an inside-the-Beltway Washington institution, became a little too dependent on federal funding, a little too bloated for the work it was engaged in."

Hard Decisions

In October 2006, an opening arose that gave Points of Light a chance to acquire what Mr. Bush calls "an injection of energy and passion." The longtime president of the Points of Light Foundation, Robert K. Goodwin, announced he was retiring — and the two groups started thinking of a merger.

When Ms. Nunn's name came up to run the new group, some people wondered whether she was up to the task of making the hard decisions required to make a merger work. Could she work with two boards, lay off people, find a way to eliminate confusion about the two "brand names"?

"She didn't have business experience. She had been essentially in one organization," says Walt Shill, a managing director at Accenture Management Consulting, which helped the groups navigate the merger. But he came away impressed. "She clearly came through," he says.

The hard decisions ended up including shrinking staff positions from 140 at both groups to 80 in the combined operation.

Ms. Nunn also inherited a messy legal complication. About a year ago, Points of Light had to suspend travel sales over an online store it operated with eBay, because of fraudulent activities by an outside contractor.

The group fired the contractor, refunded money to affected travelers, and has spent many hours providing materials to legal authorities.

"The good news is that we have moved beyond it, hopefully," Ms. Nunn says. "But it was a great stress on the organization."

Points of Light now operates another venture with eBay, MissionFish, which allows buyers and sellers to donate a portion of sales to charities. Ms. Nunn sees it as part of a broader trend among people wanting to do good.

"When people think about being change agents, they think about voting, they think about volunteering, and they increasingly think about using consumer power," she says.

Since 2003, the project has raised more than $137-million for more than 16,000 charities worldwide, according to information on the site.

Points of Light is now focusing its energies in three areas — the economy, the environment, and education, Ms. Nunn says. In addition to operating the Hands On Network of volunteer centers and MissionFish, it runs a "civic incubator" that helps get entrepreneurial projects off the ground.

The group still gets some money from the Corporation for National and Community Service, but as competitive grants. Last year it won a three-year grant of $5-million a year for work to increase the number of volunteers and improve retention rates , some of which it awards to other groups across the country.

Observers say one of Ms. Nunn's greatest strengths has been her ability to bridge two distinct volunteer worlds.

Ms. Smith, the board member, describes it this way: Points of Light traditionally attracted a fair share of people of means, especially women, who believed that "you've been given much, so you owe much."

HandsOn traditionally attracted a more diverse group — picture a "college student with a nose ring" — who had the attitude that "I can make a difference. I can change the world."

"Michelle has the ability to inspire both sides of that culture equation," Ms. Smith says.