Historical Context of the Merger Between POL and HO

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The merger of the Points of Light Foundation (POLF) and Hands On Network (HON) has an important historical context.   In By the People:  A History of Americans as Volunteers (3rd edition), Katie Campbell and I created a chart to show the evolution of the resource and professional organizations in our field over time. Here are some highlights on the evolution of the three players involved today:  POLF, HON, and also the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).

The Corporation
In 1971, under the Nixon Administration, Congress passed legislation that formed a government agency called ACTION to combine Peace Corps, VISTA, RSVP and some other smaller programs under one roof. The same legislation also gave funds to  the National Center for Voluntary Action (NCVA), founded in 1969 to be the nonprofit, community-based arm of the national push for volunteering.  ACTION experienced various changes over the years (Peace Corps left early), but was most dramatically transformed in 1993, when the Clinton Administration renamed it the Corporation for National and Community Service and added AmeriCorps to the stipended service mix.

It should also be remembered that one of the key mandates in the 1970s was for all VISTA placements to include the development of a citizen participation/volunteer involvement component.  So VISTAs were expected to be volunteer coordinators.  When AmeriCorps was initiated in 1994, it took pride in proclaiming that it was a hands-on (no pun intended) program in which Corps members would do direct service work and absolutely would not do administration or organizing!  Of course, we’ve come full circle, as David Eisner is now committing to volunteer management goals for all AmeriCorps placements. 

Points of Light
In 1979, NCVA merged with a Colorado-based nonprofit called the National Information Center on Volunteerism (NICOV) and, by 1990, became The National VOLUNTEER Center.   Volunteer Centers had their own independent organization since 1951 called the Association of Volunteer Bureaus (AVB) which lost funding and itself merged into The National VOLUNTEER Center – a logical move. 

Meanwhile, in 1992 under the first Bush Administration, the Points of Light Foundation was born.  Despite protests to the contrary, it had political roots and acted as if it invented volunteering.  The first material produced by POLF totally ignored the existence of any other national or local resources, including volunteer centers.  In fact, they encouraged individuals to “become a point of light by finding people in your community who want to make a difference.” 

George Romney was tapped to chair POLF but he was already deeply involved on the board of The National Volunteer Center.  Legend has it that he announced one day that he would not fundraise for two organizations and insisted that they merge.  Six months later they did.  No one in the field was consulted.  It just happened.  And the new entity took the name Points of Light.

Suddenly, POLF inherited a number of ongoing projects from its predecessor, including:

  • The National Volunteer Center Network
  • The Council on Workplace Volunteering
  • National Volunteer Week
  • The President’s Service Awards (different from the Point of Light daily award)
  • Voluntary Action Leadership magazine (now Volunteer Leadership)
  • The annual Conference on Volunteering, usually held in June

Over time, POLF itself was written into the legislation funding CNCS, and so its “official” position as national focal point for volunteering was even further supported.

Hands On
Meanwhile, a number of local efforts (notably in Atlanta) began to seek a “new” way to do volunteering:  single days of service on a monthly calendar of events, especially to appeal to younger business people.  Also in 1992, they associated under the name City Cares; in 2004 they renamed themselves Hands On Network.  In the beginning, many volunteer centers were highly resistant to the whole episodic concept.  So, in truth, many City Cares projects were started as alternatives to the traditional forms of volunteering and were something of a protest against local volunteer centers.  Yet, since Michelle Nunn became CEO, the majority of new HON affiliates are themselves volunteer centers! 

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