George W. Bush's Legacy: A Dramatic Increase in Volunteer Spirit

While Torie Osborn makes a case in this issue of Blue Avocado for the fresh start she thinks nonprofits can and should make in the wake of the Obama campaign, Carol Stone argues that we would be well served to appreciate nonprofit strides made since 2003 under President George W. Bush. What do you think?

I will always be grateful to George W. Bush for publicly putting volunteering on the national map.

President Bush should be credited for making a dramatic impact on the nonprofit sector through increased volunteering. While many of our presidents have promoted programs that would slowly change the volunteer fabric of the nation, President Bush went further.

In 1981 when I became president/CEO of Volunteer Center Orange County in southern California, the volunteer recruitment business was dreadfully grim and slow.

To give you an example: The Fluor Corporation, with the only active corporate employee volunteer program in our county, earmarked a grant of $10,000 if I could sign up at least 10 other companies to start employee volunteer programs. As I began talking to these other corporations, I soon learned that they were ONLY interested in making money - not in supporting their employees in service to their communities. Volunteering in those days was definitely NOT at the top of priority lists. In fact, the women's movement was encouraging Lady Bountiful to find a "real" job because giving away one's talents as a volunteer wasn't cool.

In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush issued a challenge to all Americans to make time to help their neighbors, communities, and our nation through service. He called on each person to dedicate at least 4,000 hours - or two years - to service over the course of their lives.

Today the nation's 350 volunteer centers encourage people across a given community to work together to meet local needs. The centers reach out to those concerned with a wide scope of issues and dedicated to many types of activities.
Americans have answered the president's call to service and more
Americans than ever before are volunteering both at home and abroad.

The President Spurs a Turnaround

Having the president serve as a spokesman for volunteering made a huge impact on my volunteer center. Companies began to see that encouraging their employees to volunteer was good for business - a commitment to serve was increasingly becoming the "in" thing to do. Suddenly we had companies financially supporting volunteer centers like never before. Companies sought our help to launch employee volunteer programs.

Schools began adding a volunteer requirement to their graduation requirements. Volunteer centers became the experts in service learning projects they would incorporate in their classrooms. Community collaborators indicated that they could not function effectively without the inclusion of volunteer centers to mobilize the new volunteers they would need for their new initiatives. Nonprofits began signing up for training programs on how to manage volunteers more effectively.

Individuals who had never thought about volunteering were now champions, donating funds and getting their colleagues and neighbors to sign up too.

At last people in the private and public sectors understood what volunteer center directors and President Bush had always known - volunteers are America's richest natural resource. Volunteers are a necessary component in creating healthy communities throughout the U.S. They are the progenitors of most community nonprofits, and without them, many groups - even those that are well funded and can count on scores or even hundreds of paid staff - would be unable to reach communities effectively.

At Last - the Data We Needed

Even though we always believed volunteers were a critical element in addressing serious social problems, we had no empirical data. The Bush administration agreed that comprehensive research and analysis of volunteering and service was critical. His administration launched the first federal Annual Volunteering Survey and interactive website in 2003. Called Volunteering in America, it was the first study to give a detailed breakdown of America's volunteering habits and patterns by geographical area, offering information critical to understanding the volunteering behaviors of citizens in each state and major U.S. city. This study also showed that between September 2001 and September 2005, volunteering increased from 59 million to 65.4 million Americans.

Today, the number of Americans volunteering still remains high - at 61 million. Americans served 8.1 billion volunteer hours in 2007, contributing $158 billion to the national economy through their service. The data also validated what we always knew: that communities with high levels of citizen engagement are better equipped to solve some of the key challenges facing our society today, such as risky behaviors among youth, community disaster preparedness, hunger, and homelessness.

In January 2003, President Bush formed the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation to recognize the important contributions Americans of all ages were making within their communities through service and civic engagement. The council successfully created a nationwide, one-stop, volunteer opportunity database at www.volunteer.gov. It also established a program that has recognized more than 662,000 Americans with the President's Volunteer Service Award. (To learn more about the award or to register your organization for the program, please visit www.presidentialserviceawards.gov.)

Expansion of Federal Volunteer Programs

In addition, the Bush administration increased support to our two cornerstone national service programs - the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps - and added new programs:

  • Volunteers for Prosperity, which has allowed more Americans to contribute their skills internationally;
  • Take Pride in America, relaunched to give citizens a role in preserving our public lands; and
  • USA Citizen Corps, whose volunteers serve in 2400 communities.

As a White House office, the USA Freedom Corps coordinates volunteer service initiatives across the federal government and through a national network of state, local, and tribal Citizen Corps Councils. They implement the Citizen Corps programs to increase volunteer citizen participation, including through programs such as Volunteers in Police Service, USAonWatch/Neighborhood Watch, Medical Reserve Corps, Fire Corps, and Community Emergency Response Teams.

Thanks to the president's leadership and belief in the power of individuals to make positive change in the lives of people in need, hundreds of thousands of new volunteers have touched someone's life and made a difference during his administration. He has brought the importance of volunteering to new heights, through increased visibility and recognition. For that great gift, I am truly thankful to President George W. Bush.

- - -
Carol Stone, president of The Stone Nonprofit Consulting Group in Orange County, California, served as president and CEO of the Volunteer Center Orange County for 25 years.

See also:

Comments (18)

  • Could it be that the increase in volunteerism/fighting the good fight increased during Bush's reign more as a direct result of overwhelming anger and disappointment at Bush's backward policies related to the environment, social issues, civil rights, the invasion of Iraq? People were enraged by his actions, and turned out in droves to fight back. Volunteerism under Obama will most likely take a different form-- motivated by his call to volunteer, by his history of civic engagement, the feeling will be one of "We're In This Together", as opposed to the often anger-fueled volunteering reaction to Bush's negative stimulus to action.
    Karen, San Francisco

    Jan 15, 2009
  • Karen, I have to say that I had the same thoughts as I read this article. I don't want to belittle Carol Stone's experience, but I don't have any recollection of hearing President Bush talk about empowering people through volunteerism. Volunteering is at the heart of what Obama speaks of when it comes to change, it really only took a few words repeated often and a few e-mails from MoveOn.org to get his message across. Had President Bush run a similar campaign to get the word out to democrats and republicans I might have felt empowered by him as well.
    Dru, Whitefish, MT

    Jan 15, 2009
  • Dru, Carol succinctly listed out the many venues that Bush employed to "get the word out"...perhaps you weren't "tuned in" to hear him? :-)
    Kelly, Vermont

    Jan 16, 2009
  • I thank you, Carol, for your perspective. I have no doubt that George Bush did inspire more volunteers, particularly among his supporters. Areas like Orange county might have seen a surge due to his policies and commitment.

    However, in my community, the seeds for more volunteerism were planted long before George Bush (like the volunteer requirement for graduation) and just came to fruition at that time. Also, I think 9/11 inspired people to serve their country and community in ways they did not think of before; I personally am disappointed that that HUGE wave of desired for connectedness was not tapped into MORE. People were eager to do something that mattered, and the official proclamation from the White House was to "go shopping." If Americans had been give clear messages about serving the poor, helping the environment, taking care of their neighbors and their community, there would have been a tidal wave of response.

    Katrina also sparked a huge wave of volunteerism, mostly from embarrassment that the government would abandon its people so grievously. Again, that could have been inspired and coordinated from the White House (after the White House did all government did all in its power to help.) For my community and my perspective on America, I see the Bush legacy as a huge missed opportunity for volunteerism.

    Jan 15, 2009
  • All: It's funny that you don't give President Bush credit for increasing volunteerism during his term due to timing, however he is the first person to blame for all the negative aspects of our economy right now when those seeds were clearly planted during Clinton's term. Praise be to Saint Obama!! Karl, Phoneix, AZ

    Jan 15, 2009
  • Thank you for adding something that is not all Obamaniac in nature. I'm surprised that this newletter would be so politically slanted.
    I agree with you in that George H.W. Bush as well as George W. Bush were both big promoters of volunteerism as in donating time with no monetary or in kind services in return. George H.W. Bush instituted the Points of Light, and George W. Bush wrote the "Call to Service" after the September 11th terrorist attacks. I'm saddened that the writers of this newsletter, as well as many other people are forgettting about these two great calls for the activiation of volunteers from all walks of life and for all different causes, without payment, room and board, food, etc., but just for the purpose of giving back to our great nation.

    Jan 15, 2009
  • I don't quite get it. Volunteering went from 59 million to 61 million ? That's about a 3% increase. (Yes, in 2005 it was to 65.4, but was not mainted.) I don't need a corporate structure to volunteer, never have. So, did it change the culture? Don't really see it. Of course it didn't hurt either.

    Jan 15, 2009
  • I too thank you for your perspective, Carol, but it is totally different than my experience. My entire adult life has been with filled with volunteering, church groups, and other not-for-profit groups, and I have seen no increase coming from the example or exhortation of George W Bush. Instead, the thrust has been to encourage self gratification and self enrichment. The scandals of war and tragedy profiteering have been most depressing. I don't care if I sound partisan; I speak from on-the-ground eye-witness experience.
    Jim Masini, Chicago,IL

    Jan 16, 2009
  • Jim, that's a darned shame that you have had such experiences. I think a large part of one's experience depends upon one's chosen perspective, what one is looking at/for. I have found an enormous amount of willingness in my community to volunteer -- cleaning up our river, supporting the Troops overseas, donating clothes, food, toys and other items to those in need. Most of these donations are done anonymously with no desire for acknowledgement or "self-gratification" or "self-enrichment."
    Kelly in Vermont

    Jan 16, 2009
  • Well, it logically follows that if you have no intention of putting resources into helping the poor and disenfranchised, but it is unacceptable to just admit that that you would think volunteering was the answer. Any increase in volunteerism is a great thing, but it is not the whole solution to our country's ills and without the injection of new ideas and the resources to follow through on them it is a band aid on a bullet wound. Let's not try to whitewash that the Republican party's core constituents are not the people nonprofits are advocating for. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous. John, New York

    Jan 16, 2009
  • John, what are you implying? That Republicans don't actually give a damn about their neighbors or communities, and are all too rich to bother helping anyone? You're being awfully narrow-minded, painting millions of individuals with one stereotypical brush. Is it possible that you are missing the point? Shoveling billions of taxpayer dollars into social programs that don't work does nothing to help those in need to help themselves in powerful ways, through the voluntary support of their neighbors and communities. Kelly in Vermont

    Jan 16, 2009
  • I just wanted to add that "service learning" was a part of public school health curriculums (middle school) in the '80's.

    Jan 16, 2009
  • This very interesting discussion thread also says something about the impossibility of evaluation or rather, the entanglement of evaluation with previously held views. We obviously can't agree on what caused the increase in volunteerism . . . there were multiple efforts, large and small, going on, economic changes, and so forth. So then, looking forward, how should we try to increase volunteerism? Does presidential initiative matter? Does the creation of new federal programs increase volunteerism or are they just new bureaucracies filled with people with masters degrees talking about volunteerism?

    So many high-profile volunteerism efforts have great kernels of wonderfulness (and are politically safe for any politician) but end up leaving not much behind (America's Promise) or find themselves confronting complicated situations that are not easily addressed by well-meaning volunteers (Peace Corps). Perhaps the field of volunteerism could look more often at these issues, as well as the endless studies of "why people say they volunteer."

    Jan 16, 2009
  • Give credit where credit is due...both Bush Presidents understand volunteering and philanthropy...and live their lives accordingly. Their initiatives beginning with Points of Light in the '80's gave a high national visibility to volunteerism at a time when it was needed.
    Gov't programs that proliferated in the '70's (CETA employment for example,) started paying people to work in non-profit organizations doing the tasks that volunteers had previously performed. Result: Decline of volunteerism.
    The second reason volunteerism declined was the entry of many more women in the workforce and less time to volunteer. Organizations scrambled to find ways to engage people in their communities and get them to volunteer again. The successful ones survived. Others relied on gov't grants and when they ran out, so did the programs.
    I applaud your article, esp on this website that is so totally skewed toward the democratic party and ultra liberalism.
    PRK - Connecticut

    Jan 16, 2009
  • I appreciate the well written article for President Bush's legacy of strengthening volunteerism. He paved the way for faith based groups to be stronger in their mission to help their neighbors and communities. Faith based non-profits are often discriminated against when it comes to federal funding. Their work reaches the homeless, domestic violence victims, the hungry, women in a crisis pregancy, youth, and families to name a few. Partnerships with faith based groups are essential and can serve to strengthen many other non-profits through networking, sharing volunteers and resources that benefit the community overall.

    Jan 17, 2009
  • Well Folks, I must say I'm awe struck that my heartfelt article on volunteerism and its impact during the past eight years caused such a stir. Obviously no one person is the direct cause of something so bedded in the American culture. Of course many factors have influenced its growth over the years, the Bush administration being one of those factors. This is about volunteerism and the good it does for a great number of those in need. This article was not intended to be about Democrats verses Republicans. It's not about one being right and the other wrong. Some of you have remarked that this newsletter is definitely skewed toward the democratic party and ultra liberalism. It's a sad day when everything written is construed as being placed on one side of the aisle or the other. So, to all of you.....a toast!!! May volunteerism flourish on both sides of the aisle. Carol Stone

    Jan 21, 2009
  • It's just not logical that power to do "bad" can be centered in a single hand, (Bush or anyone's) and yet that same power in that same hand, when focused toward "good" is impossible by virture of it having been the work/intent of only one person.
    I do remember Bush talking earnestly about volunteerism, maybe because I did not turn him off everytime he spoke. I think he made a huge difference, but no he didn't start the movement. He simply enhanced and forwarded it and for this I appreciate his important work in this arena.
    I credit this newsletter for printing something positive about this man's work. The question I have to ask is "Will the left be able to practice the tolerance it values, when it's applied to conservatives? Afterall this is simply a label. Labels hurt us; they limit what we can do together.
    The idea of fairness is among those values I find dear. I am thrilled to have an African American president. But I am not sure that ecnomically we can handle government programs meant to prop up everyone one. The most needy yes, but surely volunteerism is a positive thing? Why compare it to lack of funding in some other area?
    I fear that the social view of fairness and equality is something not often applied to the more traditionally minded in our community by the more liberally minded. I think that means that we fail to practice what we preach. I'd like to ask that we "sit at our own knee" so to speak, and be reflective enough to listen to all voices, not just those we agree with. That will take recognition that inside we too make mistakes and harbor hatred and fears. Finding that out will free us to care about each other. Kathy, Florida

    Feb 01, 2009
  • Bad news about George Herbert Walker Bush:
    What if basically all racial-minority people would subscribe to the interpretations that George Herbert Walker Bush committed monstrous, racist, hate crimes while he was the President of the United States?
    It will eventually come out: it is only a matter of time.
    Respectfully Submitted by Andrew Yu-Jen Wang, J.D. Candidate
    B.S., Summa Cum Laude, 1996
    Messiah College, Grantham, PA
    Lower Merion High School, Ardmore, PA, 1993
    (I can type 90 words per minute, and there are thousands of copies on the Internet indicating the content of this post. And there are at least hundreds of copies in very many countries around the world.)
    _________________
    “If only it were possible to ban invention that bottled up memories so they never got stale and faded.” Off the top of my head—it came from my Lower Merion High School yearbook.

    Mar 21, 2009

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