Points Of Light, Hands On Merge

Michelle Nunn, Co-Founder and CEO of Hands On Network (HoN)

Philadelphia — Two of the nation’s leading service organizations for volunteer management, one built from the ground up, the other established nationally by a former U.S. president, have agreed to merge.

The Points of Light Foundation (PoLF) and Volunteer Center National Network in Washington, D.C. will merge with Hands On Network (HoN) of Atlanta, it was announced during the opening plenary of the National Conference on Volunteering and Service held here.

Although talks have been ongoing for months, the announcement could seem premature given that many aspects of the merger are yet to be ironed out. Pending details include the geographic location of the new organization’s headquarters, composition of the board and even a name. For now, both organizations will retain their names and the new organization will have a presence in Washington, D.C.

According to PoLF Interim CEO Terry Williams, the merger received mutual board approval last week. The new organization will be led by HoN Co-Founder and CEO Michelle Nunn. Ray Chambers, founding chairman of the PoLF, will serve as the new organization’s chairman of the board. Neil Bush, CEO of Ignite! Learning in Houston and current PoLF chairman, will serve as vice chair and chair-elect. Williams will stay on as a board member.

The merged organization is expected to officially launch on October 1.

“Today marks an exciting coming together and it is truly in keeping with the theme of our conference ‘The Power of We,'” said Nunn in her opening remarks. “During this same time, an organic and dynamic service movement has been bubbling up.”

More than a decade of conversations led up to the announcement, said Nunn, piloted in large part by Robert K. Goodwin, the recently retired PoLF president and CEO, to have consolidation in the volunteer field. Goodwin’s departure this past May, after 12 years of leadership, along with no real search for a new leader prompted speculation of the merger.

In an exclusive interview with The NonProfit Times immediately following the plenary, Williams and Nunn, discussed the largely unpaved road that lay ahead for the two organizations.

“We have some overlapping activities and some activities that are separate and almost by definition complementary,” said Williams. He referenced the field of volunteer centers, some that are dual affiliates and some that do many of the same things. “So why do it through two organizations? This (the merger) enables the field structure to work better. It helps volunteer centers do better.”

Added Williams: “There are some works that Hands On does — specific programs — that we don’t do, and vice versa. Coming together, we can better help the principal customer: volunteer centers and volunteers.” Hands On works with the episodic volunteer, who has a limited amount of time and can devote it to a project. PoLF is structured for long-term volunteer recruitment via the volunteer centers, education and policy. According to Nunn, the merger will facilitate a new position nationally for the organization to advocate for volunteering, and enrich the capacity of what the new organization can accomplish. She noted the opposite ends from which the organizations sprung — Hands On, a grassroots organization versus PoLF, the brainchild of former President George H.W. Bush. “The merger will create efficiencies, scale, impact, and a much larger platform,” said Nunn. “We will represent 370 affiliates, volunteer centers and Hands On organizations that will reach 83 percent of the nation.”

David Eisner, CEO of the federal agency the Corporation for National and Community Service, said the Corporation supports the merger and sees it as a model for putting mission first. “I want to note that at the Corporation we’ve been very strong partners with both the Points of Light Foundation and the Hands On Network,” he said. “And I want to publicly state that we look forward to a deeper partnership with the new organization.” Eisner added that the Corporation intends to invest more in the combined entity. The response to the announcement received loud applause at the conference, with some audience members standing in ovation. Still, there remains some concern as the mostly tight-lipped merger process pushes on. “There is something to me disquieting about the level of privacy of it (the merger), because I don’t really know what it means,” said Susan J. Ellis, president of Philadelphia-based Energize Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in volunteerism. She is also a contributing editor to The NonProfit Times. “I’m not against the merger. But saying there’s a merger without understanding what’s going to be lost, what’s going to be gained, there’s something disconcerting there.” Ellis expressed further concern regarding the movement by both organizations away from their original intent. “Their whole purpose for being is different. Hands On is not multi-purposed. They’re really one-purposed, whereas Points of Light is supposed to be multi-purposed. But it was becoming really clear that there was a blurring of the lines.”

She continued, “The name thing is a really big issue,” said Ellis. “And, Hands On is really deeply committed to being in Atlanta.”

The organization will continue to have a significant operation in Washington, D.C., said Nunn, who said a presence in the nation’s capital is essential for the policy and lobbying functions of the new organization. Nunn said the board will examine the geographical headquarters decision during the next 18 months, saying both organizations have a complementary set of assets in Washington, D.C. and in Atlanta.

Regarding the possibility of a name change, Nunn said both organizations will retain their corporate name. She attributed the decision to both legacy and that PoLF is specifically named in a partnership grant provided by the Corporation, which was $9.9 million this year. The branding identity, said Nunn, is yet to be determined.