The merger between the Points of Light Foundation (POLF) and Hands On Network (HON) has been in the works for many months. All of us in the American volunteerism field have been anxiously awaiting communication about the plans for the merged organization. The new entity clearly has potential for positive impact on our field and we want to feel connected to what is happening.
A Diversion into History
The merger has an historical context that might need explanation. For those of you who would like to understand the evolution of the evolution of POLF, HON, and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) – the three players involved today -- I’ve provided some highlights.
It was expected that the merger would be announced and explained at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, held last month in Philadelphia. With 3,000 constituents of the new organization on site, it seemed the perfect opportunity to provide insight about the merger. Instead, the announcement was the last item on the opening plenary agenda. By the time it occurred, the session was 50 minutes over schedule and half of the ballroom had cleared out. The announcement was brief with very little substantive information, including no presentation of what HON actually is.
When I questioned insiders whether they had any plans to share more information with people who felt confused or left out, I was told repeatedly that the decision was only hours old, “the boards are exercising due diligence,” and more details would be announced when the time was right.
More Questions than Answers
A July 24 2007 press release (posted on both the POLF and HON Web sites) headlined that the merger
“Creates World’s Largest Volunteer Organization”
What does this mean? Is it to be a “volunteer organization” or an organization “for volunteering”? There is a big difference.
The release further stated:
Hands On Network and the Points of Light Foundation today announced mutual board approval to merge their two organizations. The announcement transforms the landscape of the volunteer sector, creating a network of 370 affiliate organizations covering 83% of the US market. The merger will also create three million new volunteers over the next two years, generating an additional 90 million volunteer hours and transforming the landscape of the volunteer sector, according to a joint statement issued by the two organizations today.
This verbiage refers entirely to the HON affiliates and volunteer centers, with the implication that they will be the source of more individual volunteers nationwide. But this merger affects many more people than volunteer centers and HON affiliates! The ripple effect reaches to all the corners of the volunteer world.
And, where did the goal of 3,000,000 new volunteers come from? Why is simply increasing the numbers of volunteers important when we in volunteer management know the problem is NOT recruitment, it’s limited agency capacity to utilize volunteers effectively?
The press release also announced the following targets for the new organization:
- triple National Service Member impact resulting in 30 million national service volunteer hours;
- create a model to increase corporate volunteering by ten percent;
- recruit, train and place 500,000 new volunteer leaders over three years; and
- triple volunteer placement efficiency through seamless and scaled technology tools.
Why has a goal of the Corporation for National and Community Service about national service found its way into the verbiage here? What is the relationship meant to be between the federal government and the new entity? …between stipended national service participants and unremunerated volunteers?
What exactly is meant by “500,000 new volunteer leaders”? Is it a reference to organizational volunteer coordinators or to individual active citizens?
Can the goal of “placement efficiency” truly be met by “technology tools” that are designed mainly to inform and refer prospective volunteers?
So, these first “attempts” at joint communication by the two organizations leave me less informed and more concerned, when so much is at stake for so many.
Merging Different Perspectives
POLF and HON come from different perspectives. It’s important to openly recognize and discuss these differences, and then to understand how they will ultimately be reconciled.
Points of Light Foundation
The Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network (its full name) was funded to be the national focal point/representative/advocate of volunteering in the United States and can best be understood by looking at some of its counterparts around the world, such as Volunteering England and Volunteering Australia.
In the last few years, POLF became more and more focused on volunteer centers, almost to the exclusion of other programs and services. Yet unfortunately, too many existing volunteer centers are still weak, ineffective, and woefully under-resourced. Most of the public knows nothing about them and their impact has been minimal. There are indeed some outstanding volunteer centers, but right now a lot of work still needs to be done to reach the enormous potential of what a volunteer center could be in every community.
Hands On Network
Hands On (formerly City Cares) originally fought the resistance of local volunteer centers to its “new” approach to volunteering: single days of service on a monthly calendar of events, especially to appeal to younger business people. But despite the organization’s roots as an alternative to traditional volunteer service, a look at the current roster shows that the majority of new affiliates are volunteer centers themselves!
So a relationship between POLF and HON has been percolating from the ground up.
The hybrid that results when a volunteer center becomes a HON affiliate raises some interesting contradictions of mission. For example:
- Volunteer centers always positioned themselves as neutral go-betweens in referring people to organizations needing volunteers. These people did not consider themselves volunteers for the volunteer center, but for the agency where they ended up.
- Conversely, in the HON model, volunteers join and identify with HON and then deploy themselves out temporarily to many community agencies.
- Volunteer centers were meant to support all sorts of volunteering for all sorts of organizations and causes.
- HON is focused on the single-day model (mainly) and selects specific organizations to receive service.
- POLF’s purpose is to focus on the United States; HON has been creating affiliates in other countries as well.
And so on…. This sea of conflicting missions makes it clear why the volunteerism field might wonder what model the new organization wants to pursue. Clarification is much needed.
Furthermore, Hands On Network is privately funded, created its own board, and has a solid, single focus. Its main constituents are its affiliates. Therefore, it makes sense that HON discussed the merger mainly with its affiliates. HON folks with whom I’ve spoken see the merger as recognition – even as vindication – for their “form” of volunteering.
The Points of Light Foundation, however, has a much broader and complex mandate, and a range of different constituencies. They receive millions of dollars in government money, several of their board members are appointed by government officials, and POLF has a direct relationship with the Corporation (the co-sponsorship of the annual conference is but one example). So POLF is quasi-governmental, has a roster of paying “members” and subscribers, and therefore is accountable to others beyond their board of directors.
So the two huge, unanswered questions are:
- What is being done to examine, reconcile, and then communicate the philosophy and values of the new, merged organization?
- Who are the constituents of the merged organization and who, therefore, has the right to hold it accountable for serving the real (and not the political) needs of the field?
What You Can Do
There is also a two-page FAQ document that explains some other details. There, at the very end, is this invitation:
It is too early to announce definitive new programs or initiatives, and we want to have the benefit of input from our affiliates and other partners. We invite everyone to join with us and take this opportunity to help re-imagine what’s possible. An e-mail box and a blog have been created to capture your ideas and to spark a dialogue over the next few months to inform and shape our goals and implementation plans: blog - http://handsonpointsoflight.wordpress.com. E-mail
As of July 31, only seven comments were posted (and you have to hunt to find them), none really addressing issues other than praising volunteerresources.org. Unfortunately, the wording of “input from our affiliates and other partners” still does not open the discussion to anyone in the United States concerned with volunteer issues, but I’m asking all of you to give input anyway!
Please consider posting BOTH a response here and also on http://handsonpointsoflight.wordpress.com. What do you think?
- Should the new organization focus on recruiting more volunteers or on building the capacity of organizations to welcome and engage citizens in their work?
- Do you agree that volunteer centers should be the priority over all the other possible constituencies in the field?
- How can (and should) the new organization also involve and serve volunteer program managers?
- What should happen in communities currently without either a volunteer center or a HON affiliate?
- What is and should be the role of CNCS in all of this?
- What do you think about the strong involvement of political families in the new organization, including Neil Bush as chair-elect (son and brother of two Republican Presidents) and Michelle Nunn as CEO (daughter of retired Democratic Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia) – even if this is clearly bi-partisan?
If we stay silent, we will deserve whatever we get. This could be a glorious opportunity to contribute to an important resource for our field. Let’s get involved.
Infrastructure to Support Volunteering
The term "infrastructure" is often used to describe the various national and local resources established to support volunteers, volunteer-involving agencies, and managers of volunteer resources. These include "peak bodies" such as National Offices or Centers for Volunteering, professional associations of VRMs, university programs teaching about the field, and more.
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