The Freedom Corps: what now?

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | February 21, 2002


Hundreds of thousands of

people who've visited the Web site, thousands more

who've called the toll-free number, and a bevy of

nonprofit groups wondering how they fit in. For all of

them, the biggest question about the USA Freedom Corps

is -- what now?

While they wait for more details, reactions to President

Bush's new initiative range from heartfelt inspiration

to bona fide irritation. And smack in the middle are a

whole lot of people just shrugging and saying "so what?"

Bob Arnold, associate director for capacity building and

evaluation for Church World Service's emergency response

program, was perusing a Federal Emergency Management

Agency course on volunteers. It outlined past

presidential initiatives on volunteerism.

It turns out every President for the last 40 years has

proposed some kind of volunteer program -- yet the rate

of volunteerism in the U.S. hasn't budged since the

1980s.

So the USA Freedom Corps isn't what Arnold considers

groundbreaking. "To me it's basically in the tradition

of what President Clinton tried to do with AmeriCorps,"

said Arnold. "So I'm not particularly wary but I'm not

jumping up and down either."

If the USA Freedom Corps ends up with the same structure

as AmeriCorps -- and it looks that way to many -- at

least people will know what to expect.

Many nonprofits have successfully worked with AmeriCorps

participants, said Vin Reilly, who helped coordinate

volunteers for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in New

York City in the wake of Sept 11.

"AmeriCorps is a wonderful idea and a wonderful program

-- with a lot of problems," he said. "There is just a

huge amount of paperwork associated with that the

program. Every nonprofit I know that works with

AmeriCorps talks about the pile of paperwork."

Others are questioning Bush's charge to Americans to do

4,000 hours of volunteer service in their lifetime.

Where'd the number 4,000 -- about two years -- come

from, they wonder. And do the 4,000 hours have to be

with the Freedom Corps, or can they be with, say, a

local church?

Reilly said giving a number of hours makes volunteerism

sound too much like a requirement and not enough of a

heartfelt commitment. "It sounds like you're sentenced

to community service. It's like a term."

But there are those who think the Freedom Corps could be

a perfect outlet for people's desire to help.

"Our reaction is quite different," said Steve Rosenthal,

executive director of Cross-Cultural Solutions, a

nonprofit that managed more than 5,000 volunteers in New

York City in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The

organization also sends volunteers abroad to provide

humanitarian assistance. "We think it's wonderful that

volunteerism has been made a national priority, that

there will be mechanisms in place that enable people to

volunteer."

Positive as he was, Rosenthal admitted he didn't know

exactly know his organization's role in the new Freedom

Corps. "We don't know what our role will be but we want

to organize to play a lead role," he said.

Is the purpose of the Freedom Corps to recruit people

into the existing federal programs currently listed on

the Web site? Or is it to encourage volunteerism in

general? Either way, where do local nonprofits fit in?

For some, not knowing has become annoying. Susan Ellis,

president of a Philadelphia firm that consults on

volunteerism in the U.S., has been quoted in

philanthropic publications and the national media saying

that the president's premise that nonprofits are ready

or willing to accept more volunteers is flawed.

Jenkins argues that no thinking or planning has been

done to increase the capacity of organizations to

involve volunteers more effectively, and that the

problem for charities isn't recruiting volunteers --

it's having meaningful work for them to do. By

announcing the Freedom Corps without a more detailed

action plan, the White House violated a cardinal rule of

volunteerism, Jenkins said -- asking people to volunteer

and not having an assignment ready.

Jenkins also said the president put his proposal together

without consulting his secretary of state, Colin Powell,

who served as head of America's Promise, and without

consulting the Points of Light Foundation created by his

father.

But if that was true, it may not be the case anymore.

Rosenthal said he attended a briefing in Washington this

week held by the Points of Light Foundation, and that

the dialogue was positive and productive.

Rosenthal urged his colleagues in the nonprofit

community to wait a little longer. "In the near future

more information will be released," he said. "And I'd

encourage people to wait and see, then make sure and

capitalize on the opportunity."

That opportunity may take the form of money. Bush has

proposed spending $560 million next year on the

initiative.

Cathy McCann decided not to wait. McCann, vice president

of operations for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey,

joined with other members of the New Jersey Voluntary

Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) to contact the

Corporation for National and Community Service, the

federal agency overseeing the Freedom Corps.

"On one hand I thought, 'How do you sign people up not

knowing what they're doing?' " said McCann. "On the

other hand, we thought we'd better get together to

decide what we needed help on."

McCann and her colleagues decided they needed help

establishing a better donations management system and

forming county and city VOADs. McCann is known in the

New Jersey and New York disaster response community for

effectively managing a torrential influx of volunteers

and material good in the wake of Sept. 11.

"I'm still waiting for guidelines about the Freedom

Corps," McCann admitted. "But if there's a way to work

with the new corps, I'm all for it. We could use the

help. We're lacking people. People want to help. They

want to know how. Maybe the Freedom Corps is a way all

of us can work together. Let's start working on the

plan. We can dream dreams, you know?"


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