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Sustaining an American Tradition of Community Service
Profile: The Points of Light Foundation

Washington, D.C. -- The American tradition of barnraising grew out of tight knit communities where neighbors knew each other's needs. Everyone pitched in to leverage their skills, tools, and expertise for the support of a neighbor. While many Americans still feel an urge to lend a hand, they often do not know where to begin.

In 1990, the Points of Light Foundation was formed to reconnect communities through volunteer events and recognize people who provide community service. They have become a national resource for other non-profit and service organizations as well as potential volunteers. In June 2002, the Foundation will launch the Unity in the Spirit of America (USA) initiative to enable organizations and individuals to commemorate the lives of those lost on September 11, 2001 with volunteer activities.

Memorialized through Service
The tragic events of September 11, 2001, have had two major impacts on charitable organizations around the country. Many non-profit organizations have experienced a decline in funding as people and organizations moved their support to charities related to the rescue efforts and support for victims' families. Second, many people feel a more urgent need to volunteer and connect with their communities.

In January, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) worked with the Points of Light Foundation to draft the Unity in the Spirit of America (USA) Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush on January 10, 2002. The USA initiative encourages national and local organizations to commemorate the lives of those lost by holding their events in the name of victims.

The Points of Light Foundation serves as the central organizer for the initiative. They have developed a searchable database of biographical information to help organizations find victims who would have supported their cause. The Foundation will screen activities for appropriateness and register them on the site to promote opportunities to potential volunteers. In addition, they will encourage their constituents to participate and promote the USA initiative nationally.

Connecting Points of Light
The original focus of the Foundation was to identify people who were "points of light" and recognize their work in order to "engage more people more effectively in volunteer service to help solve serious social problems." As the organization has developed, three strategic areas have evolved: advocacy and public awareness, including the recognition program, communications, alliances, and other functions; infrastructure development and delivery systems in partnership with the Volunteer Center National Network; and knowledge leadership and model programs to build capacity in volunteer organizations and promote successes through model programs and national partnerships.

"Research conducted in 1996 found that Americans felt disconnected from resources and the community at large," said Bandana Shrestha, Manager of Partnership Initiatives. "When people feel alienated from each other and marginalized from the mainstream, they don't have positive opportunities to serve in their community. Disconnection is also a reality for organizations."

In response, the Points of Light Foundation created Connect America, a national movement to bridge difference and create connection through volunteerism and community service. Connect America's 109 national partners include nonprofits, businesses, civic associations, fraternal organizations, communities of faith, government agencies and news media. NetDay joined the partnership to help leverage knowledge, resources and volunteers to address social and community problems.

Volunteer Profiles Changing
Through its programs and initiatives, the Points of Light Foundation helps its constituents ddress the changing nature of volunteers and volunteer needs. As families require two salaries and women leave home for the workplace, they are no longer available during the day to support schools, hospitals, or other traditional volunteer activities. The Points of Light Foundation encourages organizations to consider family volunteering opportunities, youth outreach and episodic service--a one-day event or bounded time commitment.

"The dynamics of leisure time have changed," said Chris Krinock, Director of National Partnerships. "Volunteering has changed. We promote corporate volunteer programs, because many companies will give time off for employees to volunteer and have the capacity to make a difference in the community."

Shrinking Budgets for Volunteer Activities
Perhaps the greatest challenge for most non-profit organizations today is the funding squeeze. Both government, foundation, and philanthropy budgets have been cut and many resources diverted. However, even volunteer organizations need resources to mobilize and organize those donated human services.

"Partnerships require investment to yield a good crop," said Shrestha. "To maximize effectiveness, volunteers need to be managed, recognized, and trained. These are all things that cost money."

New Modes of Communication
Through a partnership with the Volunteer Center National Network, the foundation serves as a national facilitator, a single Internet address where volunteers can search for opportunities by zip code or city. They then contact their local Volunteer Center for more details.

In addition to traditional communications and training tools, email, conference calls and collaborative web tools help the D.C.-based organization build capacity among members. The web site showcases best practices, offers news of upcoming events and connects diverse organizations throughout the country.

Civil Participation and Citizenship
Although the Foundation has begun outreach to other countries, they recognize that community service and volunteering is a very American concept. Keeping that spirit of support alive is essential to maintaining the culture of the country.

"The Points of Light Foundation hopes to be a facilitator, convener and a knowledge leader to support the volunteer sector in America," said Shrestha. "At the heart of democracy is civic participation. Without people being engaged in their communities, democracy can't happen."

Organization formed: 1990
Mission: To engage more people more effectively in volunteer service to help solve serious social problems.