The Presidents' Summit One Year Later

By Susan J. Ellis

Before anything else, I want to acknowledge those of you who took up my challenge from last month and posted replies to my "Hot Topic." Thank you! I hope it felt good to share your thoughts--the synergy of everyone's responses was great.  (Don't forget that it's never too late to add your thoughts to any of the hot topics, even those already in the archive.)

OK. It's April and that marks a year since the Presidents' Summit on (take your pick) "America's Future" or "Volunteerism." I applaud the many local efforts that are underway to translate the rhetoric into real action. And, indeed, one can find examples of great state or local summits, and organizations and corporations taking their "commitments" seriously. But, all in all, what looked last year as the most politically popular bandwagon of mobilization to help youth has not covered much distance--not to mention the little red wagon that pops up occasionally, empty and still.

You'll probably be reading a lot of mainstream media "look back" articles this month. But in this "hot topic" essay, I want to focus specifically on the volunteerism perspective of the Summit's aftermath. I want to emphasize that, despite the real problems I had with the Summit itself (documented in various print columns and articles), I take no pleasure in remaining negative. I would rather be cheering for successes.

Here are some of my thoughts. Do you agree? Has your local situation been different (please DO share positives!)?

  • The lines are completely blurred as to whether the issue is anything and everything that helps children (within the 5 goals) or whether the issue is how American citizens, as volunteers, can help children.
  • Above and beyond everything else, recognition of the existence, let alone the importance, of volunteer administration remains almost completely absent. Listen to the few media stories that trickle out and try to find any discussion of the vital element of effective volunteer coordination. It's all "if only people would help," never "if only organizations knew how to involve people effectively."
  • The supposed "resource materials" produced by America's Promise focus on about how to run a summit and the rules of how to use the red wagon logo. It's as though local summits are ends unto themselves. Nowhere is even the topic of "volunteer management" mentioned as one on which people might want to become better informed.
  • Has anyone seen any indication at all that America's Promise has led to:
    • More funding for organizations to hire volunteer coordinators to help all the new volunteers accomplish something?
    • More funding for Volunteer Centers to be clearinghouses for the process?
    • Any training (or any increased respect) of affected professional paid staff in valuing volunteer contributions? After all, the new volunteers must work with teachers, social workers, and other youth workers. Do these folks really want the volunteer help?
    • Any further examination of the issue of screening requirements, particularly the cost, time, and limitations of the current police check system?
  • From the beginning, the "commitments" so loudly touted have been flawed, and they have not been improved. Here are a few concerns:
    • No mechanism for assessing whether a commitment is needed by anyone, or how it might mesh with other relevant commitments and/or activities already underway in a community. The operative philosophy seems to be "the giver knows best"--even if the corporation or organization has no record whatsoever in working with youth or volunteer issues.
    • Emphasis on quantity, not quality or impact. One large nonprofit organization made a numerical commitment to recruit 100,000 more volunteers by the year 2000. While this sounds wonderful on a superficial level, I find myself wondering: to do what? It's ironic that right now we are seeing a buzz about the concept of "outcomes evaluation" (see Measuring the Difference, by Melissa Eystad, et. al.), in which managers are urged to stop confusing activities (e.g., the number of volunteers, the number of summits) with accomplishments (e.g., ten per cent increase in GED test takers since volunteers assigned, cutting truancy by 25%).
  • Points of Light is conspicuous by its absence from the work of America's Promise. In fact, the only mention of POLF I could find on the AP Web site was buried in a list of organizational resources. Many of you know that I have criticized POLF for various things, but to me there is no question that POLF was the logical (and rightful) home of the Summit's follow through. Because of political in-fighting, we now have millions of dollars funneled into two national organizations, neither of which is doing the job of making the public and agencies aware of the complexities of volunteer involvement (while also being cheerleaders and advocates).
  • There has been no sustained visibility for the work being done. In fact, the re-initiation of the daily Points of Light awards (which I applaud), has more long-term impact than anything America's Promise has produced. Given the amazing media blitz preceding the Summit, and the beyond-belief coverage of the actual event, the almost total silence since then has to be chalked up to ignorance of the need to sustain enthusiasm or gross incompetence. (Not that I have an opinion!)

All this may be fiddling while Rome burns. If we succeed in recruiting and training a million tutors, but we decimate our school systems by underfunding, union resistance, and schemes like private tuition vouchers, what are we really doing? Or, given last week's horrifying killing spree in Arkansas, how can we give kids a "safe place" if we refuse to deal with gun control or look at the failure of the war on drugs? Volunteers may indeed be a large part (not the whole) of the solution for such bigger problems. It may be marginalizing the true potential of volunteers to relegate them to handling the symptoms of children at risk rather than the causes. How can leaders of volunteers act, not react, to these challenges?

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