The Misguided Message of the Summit
By Henry Goldstein
Reprinted with permission from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 1997

The Presidents' summit on volunteerism was supposed to be about finding ways to help the nation's poorest kids.

That the Philadelphia meeting turned out to be little more than a mix of old-fashioned American political vaudeville and preaching to the choir was hardly a surprise. Nevertheless, the summit was appalling in its utter failure to instruct the American people in the real reasons behind the problems faced by poor kids and their parents.

It is now up to the non-profit world to make it clear why volunteerism alone will not make the difference in the lives of children growing up in desperate circumstances.

That will be no mean feat considering that for three days, the nation was inundated with television clips and newspaper photo essays showing Presidents, governors, and numerous other politicians picking up trash, sweeping gutters, and buffing up poor Philadelphia neighborhoods as they sought to demonstrate the power of volunteerism.

It is obvious what the politicians got out of it: The pictures of them in tool belts and work shirts made them seem like people who could work hard and get things done. But it was harder to tell what the metaphor of elected officeholders cleaning up neighborhoods was supposed to convey about the value of paid work versus volunteerism. Many of the nation's lowest-paid workers have jobs that require them to haul garbage and sweep floors for far longer than the Presidents at the summit did. For many of those workers, such back-breaking, low-paid jobs offered them a first opportunity to escape poverty. Was the message of the summit that those people should be replaced with volunteers?

And what about the parents of millions of the nation's poor children who are being forced to get jobs so they can get off welfare? Will they, too, have to compete with volunteers as they search for employment? Or was the summit trying to send a message that volunteers are supposed to work alongside the lowest paid?

Those were hardly the only mixed messages sent out by the politicians. Their goal of helping two million poor children by 2000 did not seem to take into account the 11 million kids who will have been thrown off welfare by the new federal law and the hundreds of thousands whose parents are losing their food stamps. Volunteerism alone cannot deal with their needs, nor will the dollar commitments made by the nation's foundations and corporations in response to the summit make much of a dent in the most intractable problems of poverty.

Just as volunteers cannot end poverty, they cannot solve the problems of public education. At the summit, we heard our nation's leaders say over and over again that poor kids need to be provided with tutoring help from volunteers who will teach them to read, do math, and learn the other basics of survival. But the summit speakers ignored the reason we need so many volunteers to do this work.

The nation's public-education system is in collapse. A huge amount of federal, state, and local money is required to save the schools. As noble as tutoring may be, it does not do anything to provide kids with good classroom teachers, decent space in which to learn, or many of the other resources that kids need to get a quality education.

High-class fluff like the summit, which offers further cover for the government's continuing assault on the poor, is no gift to philanthropy. Nor did it do honor to the volunteers who are struggling to save many of the nation's human-services charities as they face sharply rising demands.

It is impossible to know if the summit's patent hucksterism will do anything to persuade people who have never previously volunteered to change their minds. Those of us who already volunteer probably appreciated the positive reinforcement, but getting the message out to those who don't is far more complicated than a few television sound bites from Gen. Colin Powell, the chair of the summit, who now has the hard job of transforming the rhetoric into concrete action.

The Philadelphia conference, like so much else of President Clinton's domestic agenda, simply did not reflect reality. It was not the full-throated national discussion of philanthropy the country deserves-and it is morally wrong to use the high ideas of volunteerism to distract attention from the dismal facts.

The summit will soon be forgotten. But we need to find some way to remind volunteers-and the rest of the public-about the destructive public policies that allow too many of our children to go without food, shelter, and much more.

Henry Goldstein, president of the Oram Group, a fund-raising consulting company in New York, is a regular contributor to these pages. Click here to send an email.