There are many causes that can unify even the deepest philosophical and political divides. Last week, at the White House, it was the spirit of community service. President Obama, former President George H. W. Bush and their families held a ceremony to award a couple from Iowa with the 5,000th Daily Points of Light Award for their efforts to combat world hunger.
Ever since Bush delivered his 1989 inaugural address to the nation, a Points of Light award has been given each day to spotlight ordinary Americans engaged in volunteerism. In that speech, Bush called such citizens “a thousand points of light” that “spread like stars throughout the nation, doing good.”
More than two decades later, Obama is continuing the call to action. He honored Bush for his efforts to increase volunteerism during his presidency.
“Volunteerism has gone from something some people do some of the time to something lots of people do as a regular part of their lives,” Obama said.
Last year 64.3 million Americans gave 8 billion volunteer hours through an organization, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. Many businesses joined in the campaign, shifting from scattershot cash donations to strategic volunteer partnerships with nonprofits. Elite business school programs across the country have created classes and departments to teach charity management. Social media provides and endless array of volunteer opportunities for people to give.
In the District 27.2 percent of residents volunteer, ranking it 26th among the 50 states, according to one survey. Here’s a sample of local businesses, individuals and others that have found innovative ways to tackle social problems by giving their time.
At the time Bush gave his inaugural speech, most businesses focused on being good citizens by donating cash to charity groups. Now, corporate philanthropy is often aligned with the business’s mission and “not just doing physical service, but using their accounting, legal and other skills to change nonprofits and efforts for community building,” said Michelle Nunn, Points of Light chief executive.
In the Washington region, most major corporations have strategic community outreach programs. Companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers , Deloitte, JBG , FedEx and Ernst & Young organize days of service where thousands of employees are dispatched in the community to do projects such as mentoring high school students. Capital One funded the opening of a personal finance center, called Finance Park, and sends its employees to teach children financial literacy.
Booz Allen Hamilton has built a comprehensive internal database where employees can search for skills-based volunteer opportunities at the 700 nonprofits in its network. IBM has decided to give more in pro bono services than in cash grants. One of its programs include employees taking a month-long leave of absence to teach IT, legal and marketing skills in Third World countries. Creative Computing Solutions’ employees have now given more than 1,000 volunteer hours since 2009.
Like many businesses since the recession, ITT Exelis recently overhauled its giving strategy. In 2012, it partnered with Points of Light so that many of its more than 20,000 employees could help returning military troops reintegrate into society.
“In corporate America, people like feeling like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. I have yet to find someone that didn’t feel great doing it,” said David Melcher, ITT Exelis chief executive.
In the legal field, most firms in the region track their pro bono hours. But nothing may be quite as unique as the 50 local law firms that created Buildable Hours, a nonprofit that helps build homes with Habitat for Humanity.
On that breezy 51-degree winter day when Bush was delivering his Points of Light speech, an army of volunteers was busy a few blocks away taking leftover food from restaurants to feed the homeless. That operation, DC Central Kitchen, is now a well-known local nonprofit that is credited with revolutionizing the soup kitchen model because it employed and certified the poor and homeless to provide the services. That nonprofit represents many of the ways Washington area residents now think about solving social problems.
Take recent University of Maryland graduate Ben Simon , who found a way to redistribute the leftover foods at university cafeterias and give them to local charities. The Food Recovery Network, started in 2010, has given more than 166,000 pounds of food to hungry people. Cheryl Gaines, senior pastor at ReGeneration House of Praise, had no real gardening experience when she got the idea to create an urban garden that would give local residents access to organic food while offering nutrition training and food handling certification to struggling women. Project Eden is now is set to produce at least 90,000 pounds of produce this year. Former D.C. social worker Mark Hecker was troubled by the number of academically challenged high school students in the District. He created Reach Incorporated which recruits, train and pays those struggling adolescents to tutor in D.C. elementary school students. In 2011, he was awarded the prestigious Echoing Green Fellowship, which funds social entrepreneurs. Adam Barr is also tackling education by recruiting an army of volunteers in the community to support Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Northwest Washington. So far, 750 volunteers did 16,500 volunteer hours and saw reading performances of students increase.
The Washington region has its own handful of organizations that act as hubs for volunteer service. HandsOn Greater DC Cares, an affiliate of Points of Light, is known for its annual regionwide serv-a-thons that galvanize thousands of businesses, nonprofits and residents together to do projects such as refurbishing schools and packaging care kits for deployed troops. Volunteer Fairfax is one of the more popular regionally focused volunteer hubs in Northern Virginia. Several national volunteer organizations have affiliates in the Washington region, including Volunteers of America, Billion + Change, Taproot Foundation , Volunteer Match, NetImpact , A c tion Without Borders , Common Impact and Catchafire, which allows people to design their own projects for charity.