Selling Service And Volunteering To A Busy Nation

June 19, 2012       Patrick Sullivan      

The theory is that if a famous face can get a consumer to purchase something, that image can also be used for social good. Well, there are a lot of famous faces in Chicago this week for the annual National Conference on Volunteering and Service. They are all pitching national service.

Approximately 5,000 people from the nonprofit, for-profit, government, Hollywood and military sectors gathered for the event, which kicked off on Monday with a plenary session featuring former First Lady Barbara Bush, current Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Points of Light Institute CEO Michelle Nunn and actor Kevin Bacon.

“This is an important point in time for the service movement,” said Nunn. “These moments are not just individual success, they’re turning points for the service movement.” Nunn outlined focal points for the coming years. She spoke of the success of the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, and said, “Where’s our civic Kickstarter?”

She suggested tying a service requirement to higher education financial aid, and Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, noted that no Chicago high school student graduates without 40 hours of community service. Nunn also spoke of the need for an X Prize for volunteering, and cited the recently launched $2 million Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund as a model for a nationwide fund. Her final suggestion, greeted by applause from the audience, was for a central database for volunteer screening and background checks to streamline volunteer recruitment around the country.

Dr. Biden and actor JR Martinez talked about the necessity of supporting current and former members of the military and their families. “The best part of being Second Lady has been spending so much time with veterans and military families,” said Biden. “I’m always inspired by the strength and resilience of military families.” Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama created Joining Forces to support service members and their families.

Martinez detailed the unemployment problems facing veterans. Some 13 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are unemployed, compared to the roughly 8 percent nationwide. Among 18 to 30-year-olds, the unemployment rate for veterans is nearly double the national average. Martinez, a former soldier, suffered burns on more than 40 percent of his body when the Humvee was driving hit a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2003.

Neil Bush, board chairman of the Atlanta, Ga.-based Points of Light Institute, CEO of ATX Oil and son of former President and First Lady George H.W. and Barbara Bush, next took the stage. “As chairman, I’m very excited about the development of volunteerism,” he said. When Points of Light was established in 1990, there were about 25 million Americans active in national service. Now, there are nearly 50 million. “Wouldn’t it be great if, 20 years from now, service was simply an expectation, part of the DNA of our society?” he said.

Bush introduced his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, and together they presented Daily Points of Light Award number 4,790 to Rhode Island’s Cassandra Lin, the 14-year-old co-founder of Project TGIF (Turn Grease Into Fuel). Lin’s organization has turned 100 million gallons of cooking grease into 80 million gallons of biofuel. It also helped pass legislation in Rhode Island requiring restaurants to recycle their grease.

The always-feisty Barbara Bush likened national service to growing peonies. The flowers might not bloom in the first year after planting, but with the proper care will bloom the next year, and for decades after. “You may not see results right away, but you never know when you might plant a seed that sprouts and blooms forever,” she said. “America is enriched and a kinder nation because of your helping hands and generous hearts.”

Two of Neil Bush’s children, Pierce and Lauren, spoke with MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry during an “intergenerational conversation” about service. Pierce is active in Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Lauren founded a social enterprise that seeks to alleviate world hunger. “Enthusiasm is infectious,” said Pierce. “The key is to be enthusiastic in whatever you’re engaged in.”

Finally, actor Kevin Bacon talked about his organization, SixDegrees.org, and its partnership with Network for Good in Bethesda, Md. He explained that his project was conceived as a place for people to learn more about the pet causes of celebrities. His thinking was if a celebrity could convince consumers to buy, say, perfume, they could convince people to be active in causes as well.

“We had more success when we encouraged regular people to become celebrities for causes,” he said. “For me, to hear these stories was inspiring and humbling.”