ServiceNation Summit Draws Debate On Activism

NEW YORK — Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama took to the stage, separately, at the ServiceNation Summit at Columbia University last night to help launch grassroots campaign to expand voluntary community and national service opportunities for all Americans.  *Photo credit John Gillooly/ServiceNation

While there were areas of agreement and disagreement, one thing is for sure, national service will be a centerpiece of national policy no matter who wins in November. The two were interviewed by Richard Stengel, managing editor of TIME magazine, and Judy Woodruff of “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.” It was broadcast live on CNN and other cable outlets.

ServiceNation, a coalition of more than 100 organizations that has a collective reach of some 100 million Americans, staged the two-day, which continues today at the New York Hilton. It is dedicated to solving problems through civic engagement and service. The NonProfit Times is a media sponsor of the event.

The forum audience included 9/11 family members, young Americans, military veterans, and thought leaders as a crushing crowd of university students watched the discussion on live feed from the steps of Columbia’s Low Library in Morningside Heights.

The ServiceNation Summit will convene more than 500 leaders from American business, government and leading nonprofit institutions to celebrate the ideal and power of service, and lay out a bold policy blueprint for addressing America’s greatest social challenges through expanded opportunities for voluntary community and national service.

McCain spoke about service outside party politics and said he wants to harness the unity Americans felt after 9/11 and direct it toward national service. “We weren’t Republicans. We weren’t Democrats. We were Americans,” he said, emphasizing that national service “doesn’t always have to be run by the government” when nonprofits like Teach for America, faith-based institutions and secular groups garner so much support from volunteers.

Obama discussed the need for more young people to feel “committed to something larger than ourselves” and to engage in both military and community-based service. He spoke about creating a civilian counterpart to the military to work on energy and infrastructure problems alongside military personnel and that government expansion in national service wouldn’t infringe on nonprofits, like the American Red Cross, since there are “more than enough problems out there to deal with.”

Both candidates said that the military should expand and that colleges, like Columbia, should allow Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and other military branches to recruit at prestigious campuses for talent. Columbia University banned ROTC programs from campus in 1969.

Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) will introduce bipartisan legislation to expand national service membership by 175,000 people a year in a new “Corps” and would expand the Peace Corps “Volunteers for Prosperity” short-term international program.

Budgeted for $5 billion over five years, the “Serve America Act” would increase national service members to 250,000 people that would work on issues like disaster preparation, education and the energy crisis. The act would establish a commission to mesh nonprofits, the federal government and the private sector to increase productivity and venture capital funds. The act would increase service for all ages, from student to retirees, which both candidates expressed interest in developing. The ServiceNation campaign is pressing the act to be passed by September 11, 2009.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was scheduled to welcome attendees and the summit will conclude today with a keynote address by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who earlier this year became the first governor to create a cabinet post dedicated to service and volunteering. New York Gov. David Paterson announced last night that he would also establish a cabinet position for national service, elevating the existing state Office for National and Community Service.

“Service is an idea whose time has come.” said Alan Khazei, CEO of Be The Change, Inc. one of the four organizations — along with City Year, Civic Enterprises and Points of Light Institute — that are helping to coordinate the ServiceNation effort. “The entire service movement is energized by both Senators McCain and Obama making service a central theme of their respective visions for America.”

And the conversation is happening when the worth of a volunteer has never been greater – the estimated value of a volunteer hour jumped by 74 cents, from $18.77 in 2006 to $19.51 last year, according to Independent Sector (IS), a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of nonprofits and foundations. “It’s an invaluable tool to demonstrate to stakeholders the impact volunteers have,” said Erin Barnart, manager of volunteerism initiatives for Idealist.org in Portland, Ore. “Whether you call it volunteerism or service, you are giving back to the community,” about putting a dollar amount on volunteering. “What would happen if the volunteer didn’t show up one day? Putting it in economic figures makes it tangible.”

The ServiceNation Summit is co-chaired by Stengel, Caroline Kennedy; Alma Powell, chair of America’s Promise Alliance; Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York; Bill Novelli, CEO of AARP; and Laysha Ward, President of Community Relations and the Target Foundation. It is convened and underwritten by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Presented by TIME, AARP and Target. The recording artist, Usher, serves as the Youth Chair for the Summit.

On Sept. 27, ServiceNation will organize a national Day of Action to engage tens of thousands of Americans in events across the country that will showcase the power, potential and impact of service across all 50 states. The public can sign up to host, or find events to attend, at http://events.servicenation.org.

The presence of the Democratic and Republican candidates gives civic engagement the spotlight in an “opportunity in time that’s unmatched,” according to Toby Chalberg, vice president of strategy policy and evaluation at Hands on Network in Atlanta. Chalberg said while most Americans are concerned about schools, health care, the economy and other issues, it’s important that the presidential nominees are paying attention to national volunteer service because “their administration alone won’t be able to solve (problems) without the involvement of the people.” The summit shouldn’t be considered a “crescendo” to national service that will fade from the public eye, according to Chalberg, who instead called the event “an ignition to galvanize public attention.”

The goal of ServiceNation (www.servicenation.org, is to mobilize a grassroots movement that will inspire America’s leaders to expand voluntary community and national service opportunities, target Americas greatest societal challenges with proven service strategies, and promote voluntary service as a core ideal in our democracy. Facebook is the lead social media partner to help ServiceNation achieve these goals. A full list of ServiceNation coalition members can be found at: http://www.bethechangeinc.org/servicenation/about_us/organizing.

“Now is the time to unleash the energy and entrepreneurship of a new generation of social innovators, and ServiceNation will help bring about this transformational change by putting citizens at the center of community problem-solving,” said Michelle Nunn, CEO, of Points Of Light Institute in Atlanta.

Nonprofit leaders are waiting to see how the ServiceNation Summit and the legislation introduced will affect the sector – and hope that the next administration will commit to expanding national service will stick after November.

“We’ve seen events like this in the past that didn’t even make a blip in solving the country’s needs, let alone the international problems,” said Leigh Wintz, executive director of Soroptimist International of the Americas, based in Philadelphia. Soroptimist is a member of the Service Club Leaders Conference, which includes service club organizations like American Mensa, Kiwanis International and Y’s Men International, that leverage more than 1.2 million volunteers. Many service clubs were unintentionally left out of the summit guest list initially. “I don’t think it does any of us any good for volunteerism if we start talking about who was included and not – I think there is plenty of room at the table because there is a lot of work to be done,” said Wintz.