Not-for-profits capitalize on Obama's call to service

July 13, 2009

President Obama is talking up volunteerism, and some not-for-profits are hustling to make sure they reap the benefits of the high-profile pitch.

The Nature Conservancy and Indianapolis-based Kiwanis International were among the first organizations to announce their support of Obama’s summer service initiative, United We Serve, which kicked off June 22 and runs through Sept. 11.

Obama is promoting service as a way to boost his economic recovery plan, especially in health care, education and clean energy. The initiative revolves around a new Web site, www.serve.gov, and encourages people to start their own service projects, or get involved with a local organization.

“We do want to be a part of this, and we offer lots of different volunteer opportunities,” said Mary McConnell, executive director of the Nature Conservancy’s Indianapolis-based chapter.

Indianapolis-based Kiwanis International, a national service organization, declared it would back United We Serve by increasing its work “where possible.”

“We have 600,000 youth and adult members ready to respond to the president’s service initiative,” President Don Canaday said in a press release.

The word didn’t reach local chapters right away. Toni Kottlowski, president-elect of the Warren Township chapter, said she heard about United We Serve on the news, but didn’t know about the announcement from Kiwanis headquarters.

Kottlowski spends 20 hours a week on Kiwanis, and she’d like to see more people involved.

“I think it’s always good when you bring everybody together to do something. I don’t care what administration we’re under,” she said.

The practical part of the Obama initiative is the new Web site, which links to a volunteer-opportunity search tool. The search function was created by All for Good, a volunteer group of Silicon Valley programmers.

Searches at www.allforgood.org turn up links to listings that already exist on sites such as www.volunteermatch.org.

Nature Conservancy Indiana began entering its volunteer opportunities on the new database after the national office in Washington, D.C., declared its support for United We Serve, shortly after Obama’s June 17 announcement.

The Indiana chapter already has a robust volunteer network, McConnell said. With thousands of acres on which to plant trees, clean up trash, and eradicate invasive plant species, the organization can always use more hands, she said.

“At least for us, it’s great to have this kind of opportunity to get lots of people out,” McConnell said.

The needs of Art with a Heart, which takes art lessons to under-served Indianapolis students, also can be found at All for Good.

Art with a Heart has advertised through other national Web sites, as well as one maintained by United Way of Central Indiana. But founder Carol Conrad doesn’t intend to spend any more time on United We Serve.

“Trying to manage how many databases we’re supposed to be on, keep [the listing] updated, then making sure we close it down so people don’t get frustrated—it’s a huge time commitment,” Conrad said.

Online efforts do help net volunteers, Conrad added. A high school student who is working in the office this summer found Art with a Heart by entering “arts organizations” in a Google search, Conrad said. “She’s just absolutely fabulous.”

Not-for-profit management expert Beth Gazely, assistant professor of public affairs at Indiana University, doubts that Obama’s call to service will have any more long-term impact than past presidential efforts.

“These are all really well-intentioned efforts to make public service opportunities more visible,” she said. “Whether it helps is another question.”

Some highly motivated people will seek opportunities online, Gazely said, but most engage because of a personal connection. Locally based volunteer-resource centers are more effective than Web sites alone, she said.

“If we’re talking about real money and local-level, permanent efforts and activities, I’m all for it,” she said.

United Way of Central Indiana places more than 10,000 volunteers a year, partly with the help of its online database. Volunteer Center Director Alan Witchey said human contact and follow-up with organizations play an important role.

Many United Way agencies are lacking volunteer support during the recession. Witchey found in a recent survey that 35 percent have fewer volunteers than a year ago, while 56 percent have more.

Agencies that recruited their volunteers through recently downsized companies tend to be most affected, Witchey said.

Despite the need for volunteers, Witchey said some but not all agencies are taking advantage of United We Serve’s Web tools.

“It’s a wonderful concept and idea,” he said. “In practicality, you have a local group in many communities providing this service.”

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