Michelle Nunn: A Point of Light in the Political Fray
By Lisa Yarkony, PhD
“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.” The experience had taught her that people are keen to set partisan rancor aside and collaborate to solve problems. “Wherever I go in Georgia,” she explained, “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.”
The lanky mother of two, and Caring Award winner of 2002, also believes in transcending self to serve others. “When I talk to my kids about what it means to have fun, it’s not just eating ice cream or playing video games,” she explained. “It’s the reward of hard work and the reward of doing something that’s important and meaningful. That might sound a little nerdy, but it’s where I find my meaning.” So “don’t hold back your compassion and empathy” she has urged in a call for public service that’s mobilized a fervent core of supporters. In May, she swept to victory in Georgia’s primary election.
Now she faces an uphill fight to win in the Peach State come November. Georgia has never put a woman in the Senate, and no Democrat has won statewide office there since 1998. But 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.
When she graduated from high school in 1989, she applied to the Peace Corps. “I knew I wanted to be in service and I was committed to doing something internationally,” she recalled. “While I waited for my Peace Corps application, I met a group of individuals who were starting an organization to mobilize volunteers in Atlanta and I became the first glorified, part-time executive director of an effort called Hands On Atlanta. By the time I was accepted into the Peace Corps, I had found that I loved my domestic service work and deferred, focusing on building Hands On Atlanta and later Hands On Network, which now have combined to form Points of Light Institute — with more than 250 affiliates and a presence in 40 international cities.”
Nunn and her 11 friends never expected their small endeavor to grow into a global enterprise. Their original goal was to create a dynamic and flexible model for getting other young adults involved “We started by organizing a few monthly projects ranging from house building to sorting food at the food bank,” she recalled. Within a few years, they were bringing in 1,500 volunteers each month to work cleaning parks, renovating low-income housing, feeding the homeless, tutoring inner-city youth, helping the disabled, and anything else the community needed. By 1993, more than 10,000 people had given time and effort to empower thousands more through Hands On Atlanta. Soon Nunn’s efforts at Hands On Atlanta had spread throughout the globe from Manila to Memphis. “Our approach,” Nun explained, “allowed people flexibility in scheduling, the reinforcement and social capital of working together in teams, and impact orientation through hands-on projects, a quality experience, and an opportunity for service leadership.”
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.”
For example, Richard Goldsmith read a newspaper article calling Parklane Elementary the lowest-performing school in Fulton County, Georgia. “He met with the principal,” Nunn recalled, “and discovered what the students needed most was attention from caring adults. He launched the Discovery Program, a Saturday school run by volunteers who contribute to the academic and life success of students who might otherwise fall through the cracks. Twenty years later, Goldsmith still spends his Saturdays at Parklane and has taught all who have served him the value of compassion, commitment, and sacrifice.”
Similarly Duncan Moore decided to launch his own international volunteer effort after watching a 60 Minutes profile about a peanut-based product that fights malnutrition among third-world children. It’s badly needed, the show pointed out, because malnutrition takes the lives of five million children each year. Moved by their plight, Moore decided to develop and patent his own peanut-based product. Fortunately, he lives in Georgia, a region renowned for peanut growing, so he had easy access to experts. With help from them and local volunteers, he sent his first shipments to Africa four years back.
Watching volunteers like these led Nunn to realize “there are endless things we can do. Part of it is being creative in putting the needs and putting the volunteer time and resources together in ways that make sense,” she said. “I see us continuing to grow in terms of volunteers, continuing to grow in terms of projects, and maybe expanding the scope of our projects and really getting in and helping some of the communities.”
Corporate partnerships made a serious impact as Atlanta-based companies, such as Home Depot, Coca Cola, UPS, and Delta Airlines, began supporting volunteer programs. “While corporations are increasingly interested in involving their employees in volunteer activities they often do not know how to begin,” Nunn explained. With her guidance, a Corporate Service Council of CEOs and civic leaders launched a corporate month of service in 2005. The inspiration for this yearly event was a Hands On Campaign to involve 6.4 million volunteers by 2007 in projects affecting children, health, and the environment. The campaign was well under way when Nunn’s life reached an important turning point. In 2007, the Hands on Network and the Points of Light Foundation in Washington, DC, announced that their two organizations would merge.
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, it 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.
So was the lesson that Nunn drew from watching the power of regular people to heal the world. “At Points of Light,” she told an audience in London, “I am lucky to bear witness to the work of millions of change agents. It’s exciting to watch our international network grow from a few social entrepreneurs to thousands of them leading change in 22 countries. Our affiliates like Singapore Cares are expanding the circle of compassion and they are doing it quickly — in just three years growing from zero to 20,000 volunteers and RomAltruista has grown from zero to 1,000 in three months. They are also creating social impact projects like our affiliate in Brazil that is applying skill-based volunteer leadership to reshape the day-care experience for Rio’s low-income children or Hands On Manila’s highly intensive enrichment program for high-achieving kids in under-resourced schools.”
Points of Light engages people of all ages, ranging from young children to seniors, Nunn explained. “We ignite the power of kids to make their mark through generationOn and 1,800 generationOn clubs, activate the next generation of service leaders through AmeriCorps Alums, engage businesses in volunteering their skills through the corporate institute, and accelerate and scale social enterprises through our civic incubator. We activate millions of volunteers through days of service, such as Make a Difference Day and MLK Day, we convene the world’s largest volunteer leader conference, we prepare individuals and communities for disaster response, and we are creating ‘community blueprints’ to effectively address the needs of veterans and their families.”
These caring acts have lit up lives, including Nunn’s after she took the helm at Points of Light. “I have found inspiration in stories of personal transformation,” she recalled. “I have borne witness to thousands of individual chapters that together form a transformational narrative that is being written and rewritten in communities around the world. I have been buoyed by uplifting examples of individual change agents who have changed themselves and changed their world in the process.”
Nunn met a number of them two years ago when she embarked on “an optimist’s tour across America,” as she described it. “I set out in a minivan with two kids to check the nation’s pulse, to meet with dozens of people who are on the front lines, dealing with community problems from hunger to homelessness, unemployment to the lack of affordable health care. I expected to find people defeated from a long effort to deal with the most brutal recession in our lifetimes. But what I found instead were people taking the future into their own hands and shaping it with effort and creativity. After 5,500 miles in 14 states, I’m hard pressed to remember meeting anyone who was not an optimist.”
A few star volunteers stuck out in in her mind. “In Buffalo, NY, Britney McClain led me through PUSH Buffalo’s Green Development Zone, where a bunch of 20-somethings are transforming a declining neighborhood by renovating homes with green technology and planting community gardens. In Cincinnati, Jeff Edmondson told me about Strive, the city’s coalition of civic leaders supporting every kid from cradle to school. In Milwaukee, Susan Winans showed me the Urban Ecology Center, formerly a crime-ridden park — now a fabulous environmental community center, abuzz with kids entering the building through landscaped slides and crowding around salamanders and honeybees. In Portland, Oregon, Dani Swope guided my family in cleaning gently used books. A few years ago, Dani started The Children’s Book Bank to share the books her own children had outgrown. The group now distributes 96,000 books to low-income children every year.”
These are among hundreds of optimists who all “share a belief in their capacity to create change, no matter how difficult,” Nunn explained. “So don’t let the polls fool you. Americans are an unyieldingly optimistic people. We have imagination and gumption. We have the ability to envision a better world and the determination to make it happen,” she said on the cusp of the last presidential election. “As we approach the electoral season and consider where to cast our votes, let’s ask our leaders this question: Do you believe in the power of citizens to provide the muscle and the intellect to forge our future? Will you inspire, equip, and call on the fundamental optimism of the American people — the hunger to be part of something large and important — to build something great. Americans will follow those who say yes.”
But where were those leaders? Not in Washington, DC, where Nunn had seen too much “paralysis” in recent times. So last year, she decided to take a leave of absence from Points of Light and run for office as an “independent-minded Democrat” with 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. But she took time 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.
“It’s an extraordinary way of applying for a job,” she told the students. “It means putting yourself out there; it exposes you. But so much is at stake that is important for our future, like affordable college or a livable wage. People’s lives are influenced by elections.” Granted it’s easy to be cynical about the political process, Nunn acknowledged, but “there are problems that can only be solved through the political system. The real danger is cynicism and apathy. The much braver and more effective strategy is to jump in.”
That’s part of the advice she would give to her 15-year-old self, as she told the students. “It would be to risk failure, to take the chance of looking foolish or not succeeding. High school should be the place to do that, but it can be a hard place to do that. Practice taking the risk of failing by trying out for a team you might not make or a play in which you might not get the part. Get into the habit of pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, academically or otherwise.” And know that hard work plus perseverance is the key to success. “If you hold onto the belief that you can change the world, anything is possible” — including victory on the political stage.
Last month, Nunn enjoyed a celebration in downtown Atlanta after she coasted to an easy win in the primary election. Nunn took the stage just after 9 p.m. to give a victory speech in which she thanked supporters and looked ahead to the general election in November. “I think we have a lot of energy and idealism and passion, and we can feel it here tonight,” she said. “People are ready for a change in Georgia, sending a different kind of leader to break through the dysfunction.” But are Georgians ready for their first female senator — and a Democrat to boot? Nunn thought they would look for the best candidates to represent them based on the ability to lead. “I believe my experience as CEO of an organization, someone who’s been a public servant for 25 years, and a wife and mother who understands what that means, is all part of that package,” she said. “And it certainly would be exciting to make history in Georgia.” As she looks at the campaign ahead, she says, “This is an exercise in optimism.”
About the Author: Lisa Yarkony, PhD, is the managing editor of CARING Magazine. She has expertise in health systems both past and present. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.