Dedicated to volunteer service

Plenary Address by Michelle Nunn, CEO, Points of Light IAVE Conference

London, December 12, 2012

Thank you. It is really terrific to be here with colleagues and friends- new and long-standing. 

The question of charity or social justice has long been with us. I know that, as service leaders, we all reflect and wrestle with this question. Many would say that there is a hierarchy of good, in which social justice trumps charity. But I see it more as a continuum. Often acts of charity lead us to acts of justice.

Lord Hastings told us of the improbable path leading a KPMG executive from serving in a soup kitchen to supporting the re-building effort in Iraq. 

When we serve, we confront the needs of our community and world, we are awakened to systemic challenges, and we discover ways to confront them. There is a fine line, as we all know, between individual acts of caring and systemic change – a line we cross often, as we live in a world that needs both compassion and justice. 

The good news for all of us is that we live at a time where ordinary citizens have never been more powerful to care for and heal the world. 

Globalization, technology, longer lives, and the rising tide of democracy are all forces contributing to our ability to take action that influences change on a broad, deep and sometimes global basis. 

At Points of Light, I am lucky to bear witness to the work of millions of change agents. It’s exciting to watch our international network grow from a few social entrepreneurs to thousands of them, leading change in 22 countries. Our affiliates like Singapore Cares are expanding the circle of compassion and they are doing it quickly – in just three years growing from zero to 20,000 volunteers and RomAltruista has grown from zero to 1,000 in three months. They are also creating social impact projects like our affiliate in Brazil that is applying skill-based volunteer leadership to re-shape the day-care experience for Rio’s low-income children or Hands On Manila’s highly intensive enrichment program for high-achieving kids in under-resourced schools.

I want to tell a few stories of change agents this morning that I think demonstrate the new power that we all have to participate in acts of caring and contribute to social justice.

I want to talk about  

1) volunteers as global actors,
2) volunteers using technology to create scale and innovation, and
3) volunteers using their skills to change the world.

I believe that these three trend lines contribute to our collective capacity to change lives and, increasingly, to address systemic injustices. 

First: Volunteers as global actors have more power to drive greater change and help more people than ever before. Let me give you just a few examples from my own state of Georgia to demonstrate the capacity of individuals to act as global citizens. 

A few years ago, my friend Duncan Moore saw a segment of the TV show, 60 Minutes, which described a new peanut-based product that has been shown to reduce acute malnutrition for children in the developing world.

Malnutrition kills five million children every year - that’s one every six seconds.

Most of us would have been moved by the story, but Duncan turned that emotional response into action.  He and others worked as volunteers in their spare time to create a peanut product – using our unique Georgia resources and expertise – that they made available to international aid agencies around the world. 

So, one person from the state of Georgia heard a report about children suffering in Africa and, with a small group of others, found a way to fight hunger and save lives.  By making this product available to more aid agencies, they are not only saving lives, but potentially changing the social development trajectory of communities and countries. 

Another Georgian, AB Short was bothered by the waste of unused medical supplies in the U.S. – at a time when more than 10 million children die in the developing world every year from inadequate medical care. 

So he created MedShare to redistribute surplus medical supplies and equipment. With a band of volunteers he began working with hospitals and medical suppliers to re-distribute unused supplies and equipment. They have collected more than $93 million dollars’ worth of medical supplies.  

Each month, 1,500 volunteers sort more than 3,500 tons of medical supplies, which they ship to 88 countries, bringing improved health care to millions of patients.

A couple of guys from Georgia, ordinary citizens, saw a global problem and found a solution to help tens of thousands of people. They are providing services to individuals, but they are also contributing to social development. 

My second point: creative, daring volunteers coupled with ever-more powerful technology adds up to something new and powerful.  The ingenuity of individual change agents, applying new technologies offers up transformational possibilities for creating change. 

Usha-Hidi is a nonprofit organization that builds tools for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories. The word, which I surely mis-pronounce, means “testimony” in Swahili and is the name of a website that was initially used to gather information from everyday folks to map reports of violence in Kenya. 

Since it was founded in 2008, it has become a platform used worldwide to link those in need to those who can help. It takes reports from everyday citizens, the media and NGOs and uses the data to let the world know what is happening during a crisis.

After the Haiti earthquake, volunteers used Usha-Hidi to pinpoint real-time locations where help was needed. It has been used to monitor elections in India and Afghanistan, in the Congo to track unrest and in Zambia to monitor medicine stockouts.

Here is another example. GPS-enabled smartphones, coupled with a volunteer corps of first-responders to medical emergencies, are saving lives in Israel. United Hatzalah trains volunteers who are ordinary citizens in virtually every community throughout Israel. 

Each volunteer has a GPS-enabled smartphone revealing exactly where he or she is, a simple medical kit and a motorbike. In the event of a crisis, a smartphone app instantly alerts the nearest first aider, who may be only a block away. The volunteer races to the scene and tries to stop the victim’s bleeding or start his heart in those critical few minutes before an ambulance can get through traffic. Those minutes can make a difference between life and death. This program is being copied now in other places around the world, including the US. 

Innovative technology and change-making invented in one place is leading to change in another.

The third trend I’d like to talk about is the capacity for individuals to deploy their specialized skills to create more just communities. We see this increasingly in corporate volunteering -- companies embracing their unique assets and human capital to create more just communities.

Corporate volunteer programs are growing more sophisticated, generating billions of dollars of pro bono support for nonprofits and activating millions of skilled volunteers. Corporations like HP, Dow, and Pfizer are deploying their most capable professionals in focused projects across the globe to create transformational impact. 

The trajectory of this work is evidenced in a campaign called Billion + Change that Points of Light, in concert with other corporations and nonprofits launched last fall. Within one year we had generated pro bono commitments from companies worth almost 2 billion (billion with a B) dollars. 

As just one example of corporate leadership in social development, IBM is sending 10-to-15 person teams to help communities around the world address economic and societal challenges. 

Since its launch in 2008, the IBM Corporate Service Corps has sent 1,400 people to more than 20 countries around the world.

Volunteers have promoted digital entrepreneurship in Sao Paulo and built a strategy for attracting businesses to Danang City. They have created a five-year roadmap to make Johannesburg a safer city and developed a plan to meet the water needs of an arid city in Chile.

Companies are using the skills and compassion of their employees to solve tough problems big and small – General Mills is empowering its nutritionists to fight hunger in Malawi, UPS is helping change the system for driver education and safety in countries around the world, and Chevron is working with our affiliate Glasswing in El Salvador to combat gang violence and increase graduation rates. 

So, these three trends -- empowered citizens, new technologies, and corporate engagement – make volunteer service part of a much bigger picture of change-making. 

Let me close with a story that I think captures the circle of compassion and social justice. 

I started with a story of Duncan Moore helping save the lives of babies that die from malnutrition. We must seek justice for those babies that happen to be born in a place where hunger still kills. In the U.S., babies do not die of hunger, but even with tremendous medical attention, some babies do still die. 

Last week, I met an extraordinary volunteer whose mission is to support the families of dying babies. Her name is Sandy Puc and she is a professional photographer.  Seven years ago, Sandy received a call to photograph Maddux, the six-day-old son of Cheryl and Mike Haggard. The baby was about to be removed from life support. 

Sandy took portraits of the couple with their son before he died and after -- free from the tubes and wires that sustained him.  Weeks later, Cheryl, the mother, reached out to Sandy to start a nonprofit to provide the same service to other families facing the loss of a child. Their organization, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, has engaged 12,000 volunteer photographers in 40 countries and served 20,000 families around the world. This is a priceless gift for families. It does not turn back the clock and it does not provide a happy ending, but it is a beautiful gift of solidarity and compassion that provides solace and comfort. 

We need volunteers to offer compassion and to deliver social justice. We need Duncan to help us create social development solutions to save lives and transform communities. We need Sandy to provide solace and healing in a world that will always be hungry for it. 

Thank you.