It is unbelievable that 4,000 people from around the country descended on New Orleans to either memorialize an era of remarkable achievement for volunteering and national service or to look to the future growth of this movement. I say unbelievable because this year’s National Conference on Volunteering and Service provided great content, great speakers, and untold opportunities to learn, serve and network with people who know and understand the power of service. This conference has been a bold joint convening hosted by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and the Points of Light Institute (POLI) – a relationship that has given rise to a number of highly successful mobilizing efforts including this, the largest gathering of leaders and practitioners in our sector.
Yet this relationship also leads to some strange scenarios like the one we witnessed last week in the Big Easy. While we celebrated the great work of thousands of volunteers who responded to the natural and man-made disasters that have plagued the Gulf Coast region, there was an underlying concern that a storm of a different kind waited just around the corner. And like the BP oil spill and levee failures that taxed the resources and spirit of the Gulf residents, the appropriations for the CNCS (or potential lack thereof) could be a tragic failure of our commitment and ingenuity.
Despite the dark cloud on the horizon that CNCS funding cuts represented, the thousands gathered were not, and could not, be empowered to have a robust dialogue on how to overcome this challenge. Why? Because the CNCS cannot be in a position to lobby its own constituencies in support of their own existence. Strange, yet true. So, while conservative icon and successful Governor Haley Barbour thanks the national service field for coming to the rescue of Mississippi, participants are left to say, you’re welcome and not, you’re welcome and please tell your friends. As a POLI board member, I felt somewhat like the married couple that doesn’t talk about the challenges brought on by the in-laws. On the one hand they can be troubling and meddlesome, and on the other, without them, neither of us would be here.
Next year’s conference will be held in Chicago, and will not be in partnership with the CNCS. Correctly, in my opinion, the CNCS has decided not to renew its contract with the POLI and seek other means to provide professional development opportunities for grantees that may or may not involve the Chicago gathering. I concur with their decision because it will allow them to demonstrate that they are making prudent and careful future decisions on their resources that a national conference with high profile champions could give lawmakers a chance to call into question.
We have to convince our support network to communicate the tremendous value of our mutual work and the need for financial support of our cause. This summer is an excellent time to engage elected officials in their districts and educate and explain the power, impact, and genuine need for national service, especially as we seek to make every public dollar go further. If we don’t, we may well have celebrated the end of an era in the Crescent City rather than realizing the dawn of a new beginning.
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