Panel Address by Michelle Nunn, CEO, Points of Light IAVE Volunteer Centre Forum

London, December 10, 2012

It is a real privilege for me to join the distinguished members of this panel and this gathering.  Let me start with a story that I think helps explain Points of Light and the efficacy and import of volunteer centers. 

Last month, ten days after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, a volunteer working with our affiliate volunteer center New York Cares, got a call in the early evening. Three large buildings in Coney Island were still without power, water or heat. Neighbors were worried that the residents, many elderly and with limited mobility, wouldn’t make it through a second storm that was headed their way. 

After posting an online request for volunteers, New York Cares arranged for buses and packed critically needed supplies. The next morning at 7:45, dozens of volunteers arrived to canvas the buildings, talk to the homebound, and distribute food, water and blankets.

I was in the Rockaways last week for a site visit to New York Cares’ volunteer reception center and got to see the on-going work first-hand. They were processing and engaging up to 500 volunteers a day to help muck out and remove the mold from homes as the first stage to restoring their electricity and reconstruction. They are able to get through about 75 houses a week and they have a waiting list of 400 homes. I visited volunteers who were cleaning out 82- year-old Maureen Graham’s home. The guts and interior of her house, including her beloved player piano, were piled in front of her house and volunteers were wearing protective suits to enter her home. She came to the house to thank the volunteers with tears of gratitude for the work that was being done to help restore her home and life. 

In just these last few weeks, New York Cares has deployed over 15,000 volunteers, including President Clinton, to muck out homes, distribute supplies, and conduct food and clothing drives.

This is the vital work of Points of Light and this is the work of volunteer centers- this is our shared work. We bring the power of people to bear where it matters most. 

Points of Light, and all in the volunteer center network, help people turn their good intentions into actions.

Our 250 HandsOn Network volunteer centers deliver more than 30 million hours of service each year, harnessing the power of volunteers to tackle critical challenges ranging from health care to education. 

We are seeing our greatest growth internationally. Today, we have affiliates in 22 countries and nearly 50 cities outside the U.S. These action centers mobilize more than 50,000 people every year through 400 NGO partners, and with the support of 350 corporate partners.

I believe that our work is more important than ever before. With tough economic times, constrained federal resources, and complicated challenges facing our nations and our world, the importance of tapping into our only unlimited resource, our volunteers, our human capital, is more important now than ever. And volunteers are more empowered than ever before - with new tools of technology, people can self-organize and mobilize like never before - witness movements ranging from Kony to the Arab Spring. 

And yet, our volunteer centers, the geographically based hubs of volunteer engagement in communities around the world are facing tough challenges. Let me share some of the challenges that I see for volunteer centers. 

New technologies are changing the way that people get information, organize themselves, and mobilize. 

Organizations of all varieties are being disintermediated (from book stores to newspapers). Increasingly we see people self-organizing their efforts to help people. In the wake of Sandy, Occupy Sandy sprung up to help. Their approach was decidedly organic and the disaster response professionals might even say anarchic.  

Funders are increasingly focusing upon impact and less interested in capacity building. Making the case for supporting volunteering can be tough when you are asked to demonstrate metrics for how volunteers have changed graduation rates, for instance. 

A new generation of change agents is embracing new institutions and new ways of creating change - some are becoming business entrepreneurs to create change or finding new, direct ways to help outside of traditional institutions. 

Our institutions and even our nomenclature of volunteerism can, if we are not careful, feel dated or outside of the current of change and dynamism. 

As in all things, these challenges are also opportunities. Volunteer centers must embrace new technologies, re-invent themselves to facilitate self-organizing and scale, make the case with evaluation and research about our impact, and embrace a new generation of organizational dynamism and storytelling about our work to demonstrate relevance and vitality. 

Here are some examples of how affiliates are making their work central to their communities and compelling to a new generation of volunteers. Here are some examples of what I believe are compelling, problem solving volunteer center programs.

In Battle Creek, Michigan, dentists provide free dental service to patients who need it and, in return, the patients volunteer in the community. The program has reduced emergency room visits for dental pain by 80 percent.

HandsOn South Alabama’s “Volunteer Guardianship program” matches trained volunteers with those who are incapacitated and unable to make life decisions. These volunteers make sure that those in need have safe housing, nutritious food and medical care.

HandsOn Nashville has started to work to not only supply volunteers to partners, but to actually collaborate with partners to manage new initiatives. They have completed 11 watershed restoration projects as part of ongoing flood recovery efforts. And they have created a six-acre urban farm to teach kids gardening skills and healthy eating choices, address the city’s food access issues and donate produce to local nonprofits.

I think that our emerging global affiliates have the opportunity to help us navigate the challenges in new ways by re-inventing the work. They can start anew and leapfrog taking the lessons of traditional volunteer centers while creating new contexts of operating. 

RomAltruista, our affiliate in Rome, is using both traditional and digital media channels to “mainstream” the idea of flexible volunteering in Rome.  They have established a partnership with “Metro,” the world’s largest free daily commuter paper, to publish interesting volunteering opportunities at no cost on a weekly basis in Italy.  They have also used GoogleAds to drive volunteers to opportunities on their website, growing volunteers (the majority of them first-time) to more than 1,000 and NGO partners to more than 35 in their first six months of operation.

Glasswing International, our affiliate in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, has focused the power of volunteers on the violence and increasing sense of fatalism in communities in El Salvador. Through innovative public-private partnerships with international corporations like Chevron and Haines and USAID, they are targeting at-risk schools in which most children attend classes for little more than four hours per day and 2 out of 3 students drop out after 9th grade, and offering young people alternatives, such as after school programs, first-ever school newspaper clubs, discovery labs and glee clubs, along with academic support in English and computers. The thousands of volunteers supporting these programs, along with ongoing projects to improve the physical infrastructure of the schools and their grounds, have allowed Glasswing to extend the school day and see increased attendance. It has also resulted in a $5 million investment to extend the program to more cities and schools.

Wendy (Osborne) asked if volunteer centers would be missed if they disappeared. We know the research about volunteering - how it makes you healthier and more successful in school and more engaged with your work. We know the stories of how volunteers impact lives, transform nonprofits, and make communities healthy (and even more economically resilient). 

The question is how vital will the volunteer centers be to the extension and growth of volunteering? 

I think we need to answer that question by continually challenging ourselves and re-imagining our work.

Challenging ourselves to think about scale - what percentage of our total communities can we engage in service - how can we grow this exponentially vs. incrementally? 

How can we embrace new technologies in ways that liberate and transform the volunteer experience? How do we allow for more user-based feedback to change our approaches, engage people through their mobiles, and curate a new round of projects? Are we doing the same projects that we were doing 20 and 30 years ago and can we add a new generation of projects and volunteer roles that tackle our toughest challenges? 

How do we join together to measure our effectiveness and also tell our stories? Gatherings like this are so important to be able to challenge ourselves and consider our greatest possible contribution in a changing and dynamic world. 

If volunteer centers disappeared, I believe they would absolutely be missed, but we should challenge ourselves to make plain to our stakeholders and the public what a great void there would be. 

I’ll close with a wonderful London example of how a great volunteer project can touch so many people. 

Just a few weeks ago, HandsOn London “wrapped up London.” 500 volunteers collected 8,700 coats and gave them to 67 shelters and refuges in Greater London. 

Elizabeth Grier, the founder and CEO of HandsOn London, tells us that volunteers saw some of the best of Londoners. One of the Tube station Team leaders said, "I loved it when people took off the coats they were wearing to give to us. We had 5 people do that over the 3 days but my favorite was a guy who walked up to us, said ‘I love this coat but my wife has always hated it - it should keep somebody else warm instead!’ 

Volunteer Centers help people be their best selves and at our best, we change lives and address tough community challenges. We need to challenge our volunteer center movement to the next generation of creativity, vitality, and scale and demonstrate our indispensable role in our communities around the world. 

Thank you.