Summit for the future

June 01, 1997

The line-up was astonishing: President and Mrs Clinton, Vice President and Mrs Gore, former presidents Ford, Carter and Bush, Nancy Reagan representing her husband, General Colin Powell, half a dozen cabinet ministers, 30 state governors, Reverend Jesse Jackson and over 5,000 community activists, not-for-profit leaders, business people and religious representatives, many coming in the team of ten official delegates from each of 127 cities and communities across America. And all compered by media star, Oprah Winfrey.

America’s Promise

The theme was helping America’s 15 million children living in poverty; the aim was to launch America’s Promise: the Alliance for Youth – an ambitious attempt to tap the voluntary efforts of individuals, companies and not-for-profits; the target is that by the end of the year 2000, two million additional young people will have access to five fundamental resources, expressed under these headings:

on-going relationships with caring adults;

safe places and structured activities;

a healthy start for a healthy future;

marketable skills through effective education;

opportunities to give back.

The Summit was held in the highly symbolic city of Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were written; the outdoor sessions took place in the Independence Hall Plaza, where the President and former presidents signed the Promise, each with a child to guide them. The Summit itself started on the Sunday morning with 8,000 volunteers cleaning up Germantown Avenue, one of Philadelphia’s toughest neighbourhoods. Then followed a series of workshop sessions looking at the respective roles in fulfilling the Summit’s goals of business, education, government, religious groups, the media, not-for-profits, public-private partnerships and young people themselves. In parallel, teams from individual towns and cities, drawn from across the respective sectors, met to plan how together they would follow-up afterwards.

The promises

Corporations, not-for-profits and the public sector were encouraged to make new commitments, over and above their existing activities, to help fulfill the Summit’s goals. These were collated in the Promise Book, and General Colin Powell, the Summit’s chairman and driving force, is leading a group to follow-up and ensure everyone delivers on their promises. From companies came a list of impressive pledges, some highlighted below. In total, an estimated 6750 million in cash and other donations has been pledged by companies, charities and individuals to carry through the Summit’s goals.

Timberland, the footwear company, will offer its employees up to one full week of paid time to devote to community service, worth 42,000 hours a year. Kmart Corporation, a large retailer, will contribute at least 650 million to support drug prevention programmes; it will mobilise employees and customers to raise 62 million a year for a Birth Defects Foundation; 2,150 of its stores will be identified as safe havens’ where children in a crisis can get assistance from a responsible adult.

Coca-Cola will commit an additional 650 million to its education programmes, including recruiting at-risk junior and high school students and enlisting them as mentors for younger students.

The state of California will sponsor an on-line brokerage service with Web site and freephone number to recruit 250,000 new mentors by the end of the century. America Online will use on-line computer technology in classrooms. Microsoft will work with five not-for-profit groups to refurbish 50,000 computers by the middle of 1998, load them with new software and place them in classrooms.

Bank of America will commit its employees to complete 1.25 million hours of volunteer service by 2000 and provide an addition 61 million to educational scholarships. Chase Manhattan Corporation will engage 10,000 volunteers in 100 cities, double its network of staff coordinating employee volunteering, and provide grants to projects with which they get involved.

Glaxo Wellcome will focus its employee volunteering on tutoring students up to third grade and provide 610 million to schools which emphasise school-to-work programmes. SmithKline Beecham is offering 61.5 million in matching funds for capital projects and 61.4 million to 150 designated local communities. Eli Lilly will provide 80,000 volunteer hours and 613 million in cash and products, mainly to colleges.

Procter & Gamble is providing 650 million to educational institutions, creating 5,000 jobs for young people in its home town of Cincinnati and involving employees and retirees in education and youth service activities. And so the list goes on….

The problem

The impressive nature of this list of commitments is matched by the daunting scale of problems they are trying to address. Research conducted for the Summit revealed the following statistics, each one linked to the five goals:

41% of school pupils from 6th to 12th grade say they had only one or even no conversation lasting 10 minutes or more with an adult (not a parent) in the previous month;

60% in the same age range spend two or more hours at home each school day without an adult;

54% are involved in three or more of 20 high-risk behaviours, such as alcohol, tobacco, drugs and violence;

at age 17, 57% are below required proficiency in reading, and 64% below proficiency in writing; 85% of high school students say they are taught little or nothing about how business works;

bit – a bit of good news – 56% of high school seniors engaged in some form of community service in the past two years.

Oprah Winfrey highlighted the scale of the challenge by saying that in the next 24 hours 15 young Americans would die from gunshots, 2,200 would drop out of school and 1,340 teenage girls would give birth.

The criticism

But the Summit was not without its critics, the main attack being the obvious one – that governments should not use volunteering as a substitute for their responsibilities, since the scale of the problems dwarfs what voluntary effort alone can solve. Colin Powell’s response was simple – there is more than enough for us all to do, government, private sector, not-for-profits, the churches and other institutions of faith, without worrying about substitution.

Some argued that all the razzamatazz detracted attention from the real reasons why poor people face problems – poverty, unjust distribution of wealth, cuts in welfare, too few jobs, lack of investment in schools and teachers. Business Week and The Economist highlighted the incongruity between Presidents Clinton’s Welfare Reform Act last year – which effectively forces single mothers out to work by cutting welfare – and his call now for volunteers to help look after the children of single parents out at work! But the fact that debate is needed about the responsibilities and limitations of state action is no reason not to encourage more voluntary action. As former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said, “no amount of volunteerism can let government off the hook”.

Lessons for the UK

The scale of the problems may be less in the UK and on some of the issues, like work experience for pupils, we may have made more progress, but all the essential points – latch-key kids, poor standards of achievement, alienation from society, teenage pregnancies – are very familiar to the UK audience. The Summit’s focus on volunteerism concentrates our minds on what might be possible in the UK.

During the Summit, President Clinton announced a plan to expand the AmeriCorp national service programme, extending the current payment of expenses to link educational scholarships to a year’s service. A study by McKinsey & Co for the Summit showed that 10% of American GDP is currently spent dealing with social problems like crime, drug and alcohol abuse and unemployment, some 6600 billion a year. Looking at the activities of affiliates of Boys and Girls Clubs of America, it estimated a return on investment in youth volunteering of between 50 cents and 61.67 for each dollar spent, achieved though reduced social problems.

In the UK, the previous government was working to offer every young person the opportunity to volunteer if they want to. The present one has ambitious ideas for a national citizens service and through this to involve young people especially in an environmental task force as part of its new deal’ for the young unemployed. The evidence shows this can be a cost effective policy.

What other lessons does the Summit teach us about how to have an impact on young people and volunteering?

1. Big is beautiful when it comes to achieving media attention. The issues of young people and volunteering would not have got onto the national agenda so forcefully without mass media coverage – and the line up of stars’ and the showbiz nature of some of the proceedings were critical in achieving this.

2. Without commitments, action is unlikely to follow. The Promise Book of specific and measurable commitments is the visible sign of good intentions and the way organisations can be held to account.

3. Clear vision and memorable simple goals help the different organisations think through what they can contribute. The age old dilemma between top-down and bottom-up is resolved by creating the framework into which individuals and organisations can contribute.

4. Competition between cities and sectors is healthy: the challenge of who can do most’ is a spur to action.

5. Individual mentoring emerges as the single most important contribution.

David Grayson is a director of Business in the Community and, among a range of other activities, is chair of the National Disability Council. A more detailed report on the Summit is available from BITC and an invitation-only briefing held in July. Contact 0171 224 1600.

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 34 – June, 1997