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Obama’s Call to Service: Will the Nation Respond?

By Tom Watson on January 23, 2009No Comment

He highlighted the Day of Service on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and true to the spirit of Obama’s rise to power, he encouraged people to sign up for volunteer opportunities on USAService.org, the new website that has been created for the initiative.

A few days after Powell’s press conference, I received an email from Michelle Obama.  In a video, she talked about the importance of the day of service and urged people to sign up on the website.  Then, Obama himself cut some ads for TV, promoting the service initiative and urging people to – you
guessed it – sign up on the website. 

So I visited the website.  Just like his campaign site, USAService.org is a fully interactive vehicle for engaging users in organizing and joining volunteer activities.  Examples of MLK Day projects included rebuilding a high school garden in Oakland, packing food boxes for needy families in Phoenix, and
collecting sleeping bags and blankets for the homeless in Texas, according to USA Today. 

Over 8,500 MLK Day activities were ultimately registered on the site and tens of thousands of volunteers contributed their time that day.  I have no doubt that Obama inspired and enabled these people to participate on the 19th.  But will the surge in volunteerism extend beyond that one day? 

We are already living in a time of heightened commitment to service.  Indeed, Americans are now volunteering at higher levels than ever before.  The latest report from the Corporation for National & Community Service estimates that in 2007, 60.8 million Americans or 26 percent of the adult population gave 8.1 billion hours of volunteer service.  That is a million more volunteers than in 2002. 

But while Obama’s call comes at a time of great interest in volunteering, there is a major countervailing force – the recession.  Research by the non-profit group Independent Sector shows that economic concerns lead to decreases in volunteer rates.  This should bode ill for Obama’s initiative, but the President will appreciate another finding – people who were asked to volunteer were much more likely to volunteer than those who weren’t.  The ask is a powerful force.  Thus Colin Powell, the emails, the TV ads, the website…

Overall, the National Day of Service was a big success — a fitting tribute to King and to Obama’s historic victory.  But where do we go from here?  With tremendous domestic and international challenges, Obama won’t have much spare time.  However, Michelle Obama has indicated that service will be a major issue for her.  Like Barack, Michelle has a history of service, including her role in creating a leadership program for youth.

Here are some suggestions for Michelle and the other initiative leaders:

Support key pieces of legislation.  The stimulus bill drafted by the House Democrats includes $200 million to expand AmeriCorps by 16,000 members and $50 million for Youth Build USA to involve low-income youth in building affordable housing.  In addition, Obama’s campaign platform included a $4,000 tax credit for college students who complete 100 hours of public service a year.  

Partner with philanthropies.  Philanthropies can play a major role in expanding service.  With their ability to take risks and move funds quickly, they can work with government to support a range of innovative initiatives to promote national service and help organizations recruit volunteers. Additionally, the major figures in the philanthropic world can support Obama’s messages about the importance of service. 

Support outreach by the non-profit world.  Non-profits should play a big role in reaching out to members of the community, demonstrating their value and persuading people to volunteer.  Local organizations have the great benefit of being on the ground and having strong personal connections to the people in the community.  The government should look for ways to support these local outreach
efforts.

During the campaign, Obama often spoke about his experience as a community organizer.  On July 2, he told supporters in Colorado that “…through service, I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger story of America.”  In discussing his initiative, he said, “I won’t just ask for your vote as a candidate — I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States.  This won’t be a call issued in one speech or one program — this will be a central cause of my
presidency.  We will ask Americans to serve.  We will create new opportunities for Americans to serve.  And we will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges.”

Will the nation respond to this call?  Beyond the national day of service, will Americans be willing to volunteer?  We’ll have to wait and see.  But in the meantime, we should be encouraged by President Obama’s commitment to service and its power to help renew the country.  Keep it up, Mr. President.

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