Several weeks ago, I was privileged to join Points of Light Founder, philanthropist, and UN Special Envoy for Malaria Ray Chambers on a visit to 10 Downing Street to talk with Cabinet Members and key leaders of the new UK coalition government led by Prime Minister David Cameron.
We talked to them about their aspirations for “The Big Society” - the theme that Prime Minister Cameron has embraced to describe his administration’s goals. As he describes it, his goal is to “build a country defined not by what we consume, but by what we can contribute…a country, a society, where we say, I am not alone. I will play my part. I will work with others to give Britain a brand new start.”
Ray and I talked about the founding of Points of Light and the modern national service movement. In re-telling this story and seeing it through another lens, it was remarkable to reflect upon the growth of volunteers over the last 20 years. Young people are participating at double the rates, and we have 25 million more volunteers participating each year than we did two decades ago. Some of the hallmarks of this success have been extraordinary continuity of Presidential leadership around service, the emergence of a strong and coordinated grass-roots service coalition, the passage of the historic and bipartisan Serve America Act last year, and unprecedented federal investment in national service and civic infrastructure.
During my visit, I was struck in turn by the rich institutional leadership in the UK around volunteer engagement and how much we have to share and learn from one another. And, just as President Obama has launched his Office of Social innovation and Civic Participation, the UK is piloting and experimenting with fascinating new hybrids between business and nonprofits, and with extraordinary, innovative models such as the “social impact bond” to attract private capital to solve deep-rooted problems” and a “Big Society” bank to foster social enterprise and innovation.
Shortly after the London meeting, I attended the annual conference of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City and heard from inspirational political, civic and entertainment figures from around the world. CGI is an amazing testament to the innovation happening around the globe. We have much to learn from social entrepreneurs who are capturing market dynamics to create social good for those living on $2 a day or less. Business, government, nonprofits, and citizen leaders are working in creative new alliances, enabled by technology and shifting paradigms of organizing, to tackle intrinsic issues.
For example, building off programs underway in Peru and India, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has launched an initiative to provide 100 million clean stoves to the poor throughout the world by 2020, significantly reducing carbon emissions in developing countries and, even more important, the daily exposure to toxic smoke of the women who do most of the cooking.
In a cooperative effort called the Global Road Safety Initiative, seven of the world’s largest car companies, including GM, Ford, Honda, and Toyota, have committed $10 million to address critical road safety issues in parts of Asia and South America, using guidelines developed by the World Bank, World Health Organization, and others.
As a number of us anticipate a gathering around global service this week at the University of Michigan, on the steps where John F. Kennedy first articulated his dream of a Peace Corps, I am struck by the circle of change that wraps us and by the boundless possibilities for a citizen change movement that is global, multi-lateral, and reciprocal.
We can take an online tool such as Ushahidi, created in Kenya to use data entered from cellphones to pinpoint locations of political violence, advance it through virtual participation from volunteers all over the world, and then apply it to identify areas for oil spill response on the Gulf Coast, to locate flood victims or infrastructure breakdowns anywhere.
Further reinforcing the importance of international civic engagement, this week Service World, a broad-based coalition to scale volunteering internationally, launched OurServiceWorld.org, to provide organizations and individuals with the opportunity to promote the importance of volunteering across borders and to become actively involved.
In a speech at UC-Berkeley this year, President Bill Clinton cited the concept of communitarianism, a form of social responsibility and activism in which private citizens step up to address “the gaps in the social fabric” unfilled by governments. He said it is “the idea that we are in an interdependent world, and we will either make a community of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities, or we will pay the price.”
The possibilities for acting and learning on a global level are all around us. Over the last few days, I participated in IBM’s extraordinary Service Jam, and I corresponded with people from South Africa to Australia. We have an unprecedented opportunity to engage with a network of global change-makers. It is, indeed, a ripe moment to build upon the foundations of the past and possibilities of international service for the future.
CEO, Points of Light Institute and Co-Founder, HandsOn Network