Caring Award Winner Looking to Become First Woman Elected to the Senate from Georgia
June 12, 2014 12:15 PM
Michelle Nunn, a 2002 Caring award winner, is seeking to reclaim the Georgia Senate seat that her father, Sam Nunn (D-GA) held for 24 years. If she is successful, the will become the first woman elected to the Senate from Georgia, and the first Democrat to win statewide office in the state since 1998.
“I know things can be better,” Michelle Nunn said when she entered the Georgia Senate race. “Some people ask me, with all the dysfunction in Washington, why I’m running for the Senate. In the end, I think it comes down to being an optimist. While leading President Bush’s Points of Light Foundation, we grew it into the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service. I’ve seen the power of individuals to work with businesses, charitable and religious organizations to make change…Wherever I go in Georgia, people speak of their frustrations with what’s not happening in Washington, that there is a focus on fighting instead of getting things done. Í believe in the power of individuals to create change when they join together.”
Ms. Nunn faces an uphill battle to win in the Peach State come November. Recent polling shows her behind either of her Republican challengers, Georgia has never put a woman in the Senate, and no Democrat has won statewide office there since 1998. Nunn intends to change that by winning the Senate seat her father, Sam Nunn, held for 24 years. Her dad taught her that “people can work together to get things done” and he’s still revered in Georgia for reaching across the aisle. “That legacy certainly puts me in good stead with voters and they’re ready to hear that kind of message,” Nunn said. And supporters like former Senator Max Cleland agree. Nunn’s profile is attractive to voters, he suggested “because she exemplifies public service — not just in her last name but in her life.”
Nunn grew up in Georgia and Washington, DC, where she had examples of great public servants around her and within her own family, too. “I found the opportunity to give back to be really meaningful,” she recalled. While attending National Cathedral School in DC, she had the opportunity to mentor, adopt a grandparent, join Habitat for Humanity in building a home, and have other experiences that put her on the path of wanting to do something for others. Her focus on caring for others helped her become the first executive director of Hands On Atlanta, and later the Hands On Network, which have since combined to form Points of Light Institute.
Hands On Network had limited staff to manage volunteers, so it encouraged the volunteers, themselves, to step forward as leaders. What began as a way to get more done with less proved to be a powerful lever for change as volunteers came up with inspired and innovative ideas. As Hands on Network grew from dozens of projects to more than 257 each year, Nunn learned that “volunteers have the capacity not only to manage volunteer projects, but also recognize unmet needs and create new ways of helping.”
The Points of Light Foundation had been created in 1990 as a nonprofit to promote the spirit of volunteerism described by President George H.W. Bush in his 1989 inaugural address: “I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread throughout the nation doing good,” he told the nation. Soon he acted on his words by launching an organization to inspire and equip people to take action that changes the world. In 1990, he also signed the National and Community Service Act setting a new threshold of presidential leadership that was continued by successive administrations.
The younger Bush was in office when Nunn reached some new thresholds of her own. In 2006, she was named to the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, and later in the year she edited Be the Change! Change the World, a collection of stories from hundreds of volunteers. It contained forewords from Tom Brokaw and George H.W. Bush, who Nunn flew to meet with in Texas. Her trip was a key element in the decision for Hands on Network to merge with Points of Light Foundation, creating one national organization with local affiliates focused on volunteering and public service.
When the merger took place in 2007, Nunn said, “We both could have continued along the route we were on growing incrementally, but I believe neither of us would have achieved the kind of exponential change we wanted.” As president and CEO of the new organization, Nunn was optimistic about the future and imagined how volunteers might now light up the lives of thousands more. “Combining the unique strengths and assets of both organizations,” she said, “gives us the opportunity to realize our vision of a world in which all individuals discover their power to make a difference and are equipped as active engaged citizens” — prescient words since Points of Light became the world’s largest organization devoted to volunteer service.
Nonprofit and nonpartisan, the Points of Light Foundation has mobilized millions of people each year through affiliates in some 250 cities and 22 countries, and through partnerships with thousands of nonprofits and corporations. In 2012, Points of Light organized 250,000 service projects, which engaged 4 million volunteers. They provided 30 million hours of service that had an economic value of $635 million and a human value that was priceless.
Last year, Nunn decided to take a leave of absence from Points of Light and run for the Senate as an “independent-minded Democrat” with a bipartisan message. She had flirted with a Senate run in 2004 but passed, explaining that she needed to focus on her two young children. Once she decided to take the plunge, her days were filled with fundraising and campaigning. Still, she took time away from her busy schedule to tour a food bank and do some volunteer work at a Boys and Girls Club in Macon. She also visited the National Cathedral School, her alma mater, where she talked about the keys to success, the importance of giving back, and entering the political fray.
As she looks at the campaign ahead and to the election in November, she says, “This is an exercise in optimism.”