Branding National Volunteer Week: Whose Week Is It Anyway?

By Susan J. Ellis

National Volunteer Week last month was its usual non-event in the United States – despite its 40th anniversary – with precious little media attention.  This year, however, that might well have been a good thing. Points of Light (POL) sold the event to Advil®, making all the rest of us non-consenting participants in a commercial advertising strategy.

In the words of Points of Light:

This year Advil®, as part of the Advil® Relief in Action program, is the lead sponsor of National Volunteer Week.  The Advil® Relief in Action campaign celebrates and enables active volunteers who don’t let pain stop them from helping others in need.

During National Volunteer Week Advil® will be celebrating volunteers' dedication to helping others, relieving the aches and pains that come with giving back, and encouraging others to join the movement.

This quote is taken directly from the only Web page about National Volunteer Week on POL's site. Also note that “Advil” is mentioned 9 times on this single page! Download the National Volunteer Week Resource Guide and read through the suggested press releases repeating the mantra.

And the worst part is that I can find absolutely no public statements from volunteer resources managers (or, for that matter, any HandsOn affiliates or other volunteer centers) criticizing this development, or even questioning it. 

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

Naturally I was not privy to any of the negotiations behind the scenes, so I first learned about the branding of National Volunteer Week to Advil® along with everyone else, early this year. It was announced by Points of Light proudly, along with a new logo:


Note the similarities to:


If you think I’m reading too much into this visual, take a look at last year’s logo.  In fact, this logo was used every year since 2009 – in the branding colors of Points of Light (we’ll get to the “ownership” issue in a moment).

Celebrating People in Action

Now look at an ad that Advil® itself ran on Facebook (and perhaps elsewhere) during National Volunteer Week. Pay special attention to the last line implying Points of Light endorsement of their product.




A national celebration of volunteers is common around the world.  It is usually run by a “peak” body for volunteerism, often with government funding. While there are examples of corporate sponsorship of things like recognition dinners or special awards, to the best of my knowledge no other country has ever attempted to commercialize the entire day or week by designating a corporate partner, integrating its logo and language, and advertising its product throughout all promotion and activities.

The Problem Is Not Advil®

I do not blame Advil® (actually Pfizer, the manufacturer) for taking commercial advantage of an opportunity to associate itself with a good cause while selling its product. In fact, the company began its “Relief in Action” campaign last year on its own.  All indications were that they wanted to continue to with the program and partnering with POL seemed a natural extension.  Their slogan, that the campaign “celebrates and enables active volunteers who don’t let pain stop them from helping others in need,” is logical and funny without being mocking.

POL has traditionally been very late in planning National Volunteer Week activities, and it looks a lot as if the Advil® connection was made after Pfizer had already started planning its second year by choosing “Actor/Active Volunteer” Josh Duhamel as the face of their campaign for 2014. The headline of their official press release on April 14 (after NVW was over), was Advil® Relief in Action and Josh Duhamel Celebrate National Volunteer Week with Points of Light & Kick Off a Nationwide "Relief" Tour. If this seems a bit crammed with references, it is.

However, Pfizer is clearly running a full campaign to encourage volunteering – and, yes, selling their pain reliever – in which National Volunteer Week is only one element.

Conversely, it seems that Points of Light “sold” the Week to Advil®, added the brand name to all of their promotion, and then did very little else. Except, one assumes, to deposit a large “donation” into the bank.  Try Googling “National Volunteer Week 2014” and you’ll see how the official POL press release language was printed verbatim in countless newspapers, blogs, and other social media – all giving free publicity to the Advil® name.  Wonder what the other corporations with big social responsibility projects thought about Pfizer’s favored positioning?

Whose Week Is It Anyway?

On its National Volunteer Week page, just before the lines quoted above, Points of Light opens with:

National Volunteer Week, a program of Points of Light and sponsored by Advil® as a part of the Advil® Relief in Action campaign, was established in 1974 and has grown exponentially each year, with thousands of volunteer projects and special events scheduled throughout the week.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of National Volunteer Week, demonstrating the enduring importance of recognizing our country’s volunteers for their vital contributions.

Note the opening phrase, “a program of Points of Light.”  I beg to differ.

As I so often need to do, let me provide some historical context.

National Volunteer Week is run by POL on behalf of the nation. As acknowledged by everyone, it was started in 1974 and administered at that time by the National Center for Voluntary Action (NCVA).  It begins each and every year with a presidential proclamation. Read the proclamation delivered this year by President Obama and you will find no reference whatsoever to Points of Light. (Unfortunately, you also won’t find any references to anything by name except the Corporation for National and Community Service, but that’s an issue for another Hot Topic.)

NCVA eventually merged with another organization, and then morphed a few more times, and then merged into the “Points of Light Foundation.” In each incarnation, the responsibility for running National Volunteer Week was transferred to the new entity. So when HandsOn Network merged in, they, too, inherited the celebration.  And assumed it was theirs.

I do not assign any ulterior or sinister motive to this assumption. It simply was an indicator of how unconnected the organization was with anything outside of the national level. After the merger, the POL webmasters basically removed all information about National Volunteer Week from the site – including advance dates. Full disclosure:  It took me 8 months to convince POL leadership that people in the field needed those dates. Finally I received the dates in a private e-mail and posted them to the Energize site – almost 3 months before they appeared on the POL site.  Since then they seem to care a bit more, but rarely with much advance planning and, these days, without connecting the Week to anything outside of HandsOn affiliates.

Meanwhile, over at United Way of America, a different story plays out. As U.S. readers are aware, there has long been competition between United Way and POL over volunteer centers, a large percentage of which are funded by or units of local United Ways.  Volunteer centers, no matter what they are called or how they are funded, traditionally are seen as the focal point of National Volunteer Week in their communities – promoting the celebration, running recognition events, giving out awards.  From the United Way perspective, National Volunteer Week is a national event connected more to the White House than anything else.  Don’t believe me?  See the NVW posting on the official United Way blog. Not a word about Points of Light or Advil®.

It all gives me a headache.

Does anyone out there care?  Or do you see clothes on the Emperor?

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