Volunteerism Leads From Self-Interest to Serving Others


CAN a campaign metaphor mature into national policy? Yes, says President George Bush, who offers his ``thousand points of light'' as Exhibit A. That image was designed, you remember, to bolster the spirit of volunteerism. But that was during the heat of a campaign. Is there substance behind Mr. Bush's rhetoric?

That was the question of the hour last week as the heads of volunteer organizations gathered here for the annual conference of Independent Sector, an umbrella group for the nation's nonprofits. On one hand, they applauded Bush for such things as stating forcefully last summer that ``from now on in America, any definition of a successful life must include serving others.''

On the other hand, the nonprofit crowd vividly recalled the last time they'd heard such rhetoric. It was eight years ago, when the new Reagan administration used similar calls for private-sector initiatives as a fig-leaf to cover heavy spending cuts for social-service programs. Is this, they asked, just more of the same?

The task of answering fell to Gregg Petersmeyer, the Bush administration's point man on what is now formally called the Thousand Points of Light Initiative.

At the heart of the problem facing the United States, he told the audience, lies ``the total disintegration of communities,'' which he says is ``fueling the expansion of other problems.'' Nor can government alone solve the problem.

``What millions of Americans need most is not another government program,'' he noted, ``but a set of meaningful relationships.''

Hence a new entity to be known as the Thousand Points of Light Initiative Foundation. A Bush-appointed group chaired by New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean will hold its first meeting Oct. 30 to hammer out details. Mr. Petersmeyer foresees a foundation funded annually with $25 million in federal funds matched by $25 million in private contributions.

And what will it do?

In an interview following his talk, Petersmeyer tried not to second-guess the Kean committee. But he did explain that the purpose will be largely to identify local programs that work - lawyers becoming mentors in a New York City high school, for instance, or a woman in Washington who formed a group in her housing project that eventually drove out the drug dealers.

The task will then simply be to ``bring the good news'' about these ``points of light'' to people around the country - which he says, shifting the metaphor, will ``raise the temperature'' on these issues ``so that molecules begin to bounce in ways that aren't predictable.''

An important goal? Indeed.

Current thinking on the nation's ills, alas, is eminently predictable. For that, Petersmeyer blames federal bureaucracies, which he says are ``institutionally incapable'' of seeing the whole for the parts. Created to deal with only single issues in isolation - drugs, for instance, or housing - the bureaucracies overlook the fact that the nation's problems ``are highly interrelated, and are in many respects symptoms of a more profound problem, which is the disintegration of the community.''

Three cheers for that recognition. Three warnings, however, for the Bush administration. First, a hunger for ``good news,'' when institutionalized in a foundation, can turn Pollyanna-ish. Second, the foundation, which will have to pick some programs over others just as good, had better be squeaky-clean and dripping with accountability. Third, the specialists, endangered of turf and prestige, will howl like timber-wolves.

The test will be whether Bush stays the course, keeps insisting that volunteerism matters, and helps bring a nation out of the darkness of self-interest into the light of serving others.

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