Community Service Conference Transitions From Star Studded

Last year, the national conference on volunteering and community service felt a bit like high school.

This year it felt more like the days before graduation.

People (both male and female) wearing tattoos and sandals seemed to outnumber suits and businesswear two-to-one. And like schools in which a day or two of classes continue after the seniors have graduated, the big kids seemed absent from the hallways of the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Of course, Colin Powell is now secretary of state, and no former presidents gave keynote addresses this year. Indeed, there were some 5,000 fewer attendees this year, as the 2001 conference attracted 2,900 people.

Though certainly Bob Goodwin and Wendy Zenker, the heads the Points of Light Foundation and the Corporation for National Service respectively, were there, neither Peter Gallagher of America’s Promise nor Chris Amundsen of the United Way of America were there. While AP and UWA were still among the partners of the conference, they shared that distinction with City Cares, Communities in Schools, and America’s Service Commissions.

Goodwin called the partnership with the other organizations robust but acknowledged that it’s a work in progress. “I think that it has taken time for each of these groups to understand their distinctive competencies and the relationship with each other,” he said, “and how those competencies are intertwined in a way that unleashes more potential at the community level.”

Last year’s event also began with a youth conference, which attracted thousands. Officials noted that the 2000 conference was held in Orlando, which tends to attract people who bring family along for a trip to the Disney parks. The Minnesota Twins swept the Detroit Tigers during the conference weekend, but they still can’t beat Mickey Mouse.

One notable addition this year was a tweaked logo for the Points of Light Foundation, which added the words “& Volunteer Center National Network” to its flame/faces logo. POL spokesperson John Schneider said the logo could undergo more modification in the near future as the organization invigorates its brand development. “To be successful we’ve got to be more than this organization that supports volunteering,” Schneider said. “A great deal of our budget was around (extending the POL brand.)”

Part of POL’s branding effort stemmed from the belief that social problems are rooted in a lack of resources. Seeing the volunteer network as a means for people to reach the resources they need to be successful, POL has helped them develop standards for volunteer centers nationwide.

The new standards will focus on VCs concentrating on their “core competencies.” The competencies include connecting people with opportunities to serve; building capacity for effective local volunteering; promoting volunteering; and participating in strategic initiatives that mobilize volunteers to meet local needs.

Goodwin said the VC emphasis is also related to the need to develop capacity at the local level. “Where we are focusing more of our attention,” he said, “is in the ability to recruit, dispatch, monitor, evaluate, promote service at the local level. Because, again, obviously that’s where service happens. Like politics, all service is local.”

He acknowledged that the VC network is uneven in terms of their capacity from center to center. “No one would suggest that they are a sufficient resource at the local level to solve community problem,” he said. “They’re not. But, they’re a necessary one.”

POL is putting together a volunteer center state association task force from among the more than 400 VCs in the network. A primary focus for the task force will be building and strengthening VC state associations, said Bonnie Brady, POL’s director of state associations and start-up volunteer center development. “It’s harder for us to get money for associations that aren’t 501(c)(3)s,” she said.

As with most networks of related but autonomous organizations, getting their priorities all on the same page will be difficult if not impossible. Considering that 34 percent of VCs are affiliated and even housed in United Way offices, POL task forces aren’t necessarily their highest consideration when it comes to partnerships.

Even within their network, understanding of their position leads to blunt assessments. “Volunteer centers are the street children of the nonprofit world,” said Judy Tymowicz, executive director of the Volunteer Center of Michigan, which is regarded as one of the strongest VCs in the network. “They’re already so overstressed. … They don’t have the time to do another initiative unless they have money coming in.”

Politics as usual?
Though POL and CNS have both been seen as affiliated with Republican and Democratic presidents respectively, they have tried to depoliticize their images. CNS, in selecting Stephen Goldsmith as its new chair, may yet see its image linked to the White House’s resident.

Goldsmith, the former Indianapolis mayor and current adviser to the president, spoke of civic partnerships and compassionate conservatism. But he also indicated a close eye for operation of CNS, particularly in moving its senior programs beyond its current levels. “I think we’ll find many other barriers that need to be removed,” he added.

As mayor of Indianapolis, Goldsmith was known for his efforts to revitalize rough areas of the city, targeting seven neighborhoods. His administration didn’t succeed in all the areas. “The areas where we (Indianapolis) were succeeding,” he said, “were where the community assets were the strongest.”

And where they did not succeed, citizens were fearful, aged, or apathetic. He described community clean-up days in which he literally found himself knocking on doors because they didn’t have enough members of the neighborhood there to help. “We had not rooted our efforts enough in the grassroots initiatives of the community,” he said.

He urged the volunteers and organizations represented in the audience to recognize the roles they play in their communities. And plugging the faith-based initiative he’s advocated, he added, “Faith-based nonprofit organizations (and) individual efforts are the way we’re going to make our communities better.”