Good Intentions Going Nowhere -- Again

By Susan J. Ellis

On September 27th, NBC News launched “Education Nation,” a week-long examination of the state of American public schools and what concerned citizens can do to help. That morning, the television show Today gave American Express CMO John Hayes the opportunity to announce his company's "Action for Education Challenge." In a nutshell, if 100,000 people “pledge to do something – anything” for American schools by registering with this initiative by October 1st, American Express will give one million dollars to
(View the announcement here).

My first reactions? American public education can use all the help it can get, provided it is meaningful help. Having people promise to do “something” is like spinning a roulette wheel and hoping it lands on what’s most needed. Further, a million dollars sounds like a lot of money to you and me, but it is a mere drop in the bucket to American Express and to public education. For comparison’s sake, note that Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, recently donated $100 million to just one city’s (Newark, NJ) public schools.

The official American Express press release says:

To further encourage involvement in the improvement of America's schools, American Express has partnered with HandsOn Network, the largest mobilizer of volunteers in the nation, to host volunteer events in New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tampa and Cleveland. The projects will harness the efforts of close to 2,000 volunteers to help transform local schools and impact thousands of students.

Again, is 2,000 all that many volunteers, spread over five cities including NYC and LA? What’s a “volunteer event”? What can this short burst of energy really do to “transform” schools? Why the hyperbole?

To the right is a screen shot of the “application” on the Action for Education Challenge Facebook page (whose “wall,” by the way, was completely devoid of any posting at all on September 27, ten hours after the television launch – not even a welcome message). Look at the choices offered. Each is excellent as a volunteer action to take, but all require first contacting an intermediary organization and 1) learning what the needs are and the qualifications for doing the role, and 2) undergoing some training and possibly even a background screening check. By the way, CMO Hayes did not tell listeners that they could only choose between his five options to help, with no way to write in any other idea.

I checked one of the boxes on the screen, submitted my e-mail address, and instantly received the following message:

Members Project® from American Express thanks you for taking the pledge to help nurture growing minds. We’ll let you know of opportunities to help enrich the quality of education in your area.

I suspect HandsOn Network is supposed to generate that list, since they are named as a partner, but buried or invisible in most of the publicity. The big unanswered question is whether any school or library or tutoring program has been told of this campaign and is ready (or willing) to accept an instant volunteer.

The only good thing to say is that now only 99,999 other people have to do the same thing to get that million dollars to – which, I must stress, is a superb organization that I highly recommend to everyone as a form of micro-donating to specific projects in real, identified classrooms.

I truly believe that AmEx wants to do something valuable. And $1 million is not to be sneered at (even if I just did). But someone could have helped them to create a campaign that was more likely to produce results, not hype. Why is no company ever challenged to exceed expectations in philanthropic work? It would cost the same million dollars to do this right. And I know this is true in other countries around the world, as well.

What do I mean? Well, maybe offer would-be volunteers the choice of five reasonable, do-able acts, such as give three new books to the school library (something the library chooses, not just outgrown family junk), take a child you know to get a library card and pick a book to borrow, contact a local literacy program to learn what the requirements are to become a tutor. I suspect people might actually fulfill this sort of pledge. Asking them to promise to tutor a student when they don’t know where or how to get the chance to do that is simply misleading them. Worse, when they ultimately discover they cannot quickly fulfill their promise, volunteering in general gets a bad name for being bureaucratic.

At a minimum, people should be able to click for more information on exactly what the five offered choices mean and what will be expected from them to do each as a volunteer.

The Issue Is Bigger than American Express and NBC

If the usual pattern is followed, some of the responses to this Hot Topic will defend this project as a way to motivate new volunteers, generate enthusiasm, and give visibility to a real need. Fine. But just because a corporation dangles money in front of us, do we have to jump?

I am writing this Hot Topic out of end-of-my-rope frustration. Remember that this year began with the “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day” campaign, in which people could get a free ticket (worth $72-94) to a theme park for volunteering just for a day. Please read my November 2009 Hot Topic that goes into more details about this, Media Blitz vs. Media Noise: What Are We Trying to Accomplish? Everything I said eleven months ago applies fully again. And – to no one’s surprise except Disney’s (who was trying to do something good while getting publicity) – the one million tickets were snapped up in two months and the campaign ended ten months early. Ask the agencies who jumped through hoops to get listed as authorized placement sites whether their effort, suddenly cut off, was worth it.

And in between we’ve seen initiative after initiative all pushing to “get people to volunteer” as if that was the problem. It is not. In fact, the very first Hot Topic I wrote when Energize launched this Web site in April 1997 was, Is the challenge recruiting citizens to volunteer or making sure agencies are ready for volunteers? The issues today are exactly the same, except that the Web and social media tools like Facebook are making things worse. It is amazingly easy to launch a viral pledge campaign today.

I want to know what you all think, but if I could wave a magic wand, here’s what I would try to do:

  1. Harness the good intentions and cold cash of corporations who want to get involved in volunteering by challenging them to approach their campaigns as they would any other business venture. Do some focus groups with end users – both volunteers and agencies, ideally on the front line and not just at a national headquarters. Have a plan for evaluating results and have an exit strategy that does not leave everyone in the lurch.
  2. Shine a light on what already-engaged volunteers are accomplishing. Heaven knows, they could use some recognition – especially those who have rolled up their sleeves for the long haul. The Disney project, for example, specifically gifted only new enrollees and did not permit agencies to reward long-time volunteers. I submit that showing others what volunteers are already doing will be a more effective recruiting mechanism to find serious new volunteers than empty calls to “any” action.
  3. Put less emphasis on giving incentives to new volunteers and instead provide support to the organizations that have to do better at welcoming more volunteers. Ben and Jerry’s® can give away loads of ice cream or Starbucks® can give cups of coffee and a lot of people will enjoy them for sixty seconds. Give fifty agencies cash to hire a director of volunteer involvement and the ripple effect goes on for a long time.
  4. Urge HandsOn Network to be our advocate, even if it means saying no to some corporate ideas. Branded initiative after branded initiative serves no one and eventually won’t even help the sponsoring company since the public is already bored by endless campaigns to “give an hour.” Point the way to great projects that provide publicity while doing real good. (And this holds true for any country’s national peak volunteering body.)

This is not a rant against American Express, NBC, Disney, or HandsOn. They are simply the most visible recent players in the competition to outdo others in generating superficial activity and buzz in the name of mobilizing service. In the process, such campaigns are misdirecting well-meaning volunteers and only adding more work for agencies, diverting effort from what’s genuinely important.

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