Nonprofit World Converges on Atlanta for "Service Unites" Conference

Points of Light turned Atlanta into the “Capital City of Service” with four days of workshops, panel discussions, presentations, meet-ups, exhibitions, awards, and more during their annual Conference on Volunteering and Service. GCN staff members were on hand for the festivities and compiled this report of a festive and hard-working four days at the Georgia World Congress Center.

All photos courtesy of Points of Light.

The annual Points of Light (PoL) Conference on Volunteering and Service took over the A wing of the Georgia World Congress Center last month for four days of workshops, panel discussions, presentations, meet-ups, exhibitions, awards, and more. Titled “Service Unites,” this year’s event brought together thousands of nonprofit, philanthropic, and corporate professionals from around the country to discuss and learn about practices making a difference in volunteer management.

After a day of togetherness on Sunday, June 14, for affiliates of HandsOn Network (the organization that became a part of PoL in 2007), and a gathering of faith-based organizations for “America’s Sunday Supper,” the conference switched into high gear on Monday morning with eight different sessions in progress by 10:00am. In one of those sessions, a capacity crowd of more than 200 (with an additional 200 on the session waiting list) learned in a multi-part presentation led by members of the Reimagining Service Council, the CNCS, and others about the Service Enterprise organization: a nonprofit leveraging the full potential of their volunteers by following the four principals of “strategic volunteering,” which can be learned through a training, mentoring, and certification program conducted through HandsOn Network’s Volunteer Centers.

Pete York, founding CEO of social science research outfit Algorhythm, reported that a certified Service Enterprise organization—having adopted a suite of well-researched practices that includes viewing volunteerism as a core strategic function, rather than an afterthought, and focusing volunteers on true needs, rather than on whatever’s easiest—is able to do the same work with half the budget. “It’s like acquiring a new, sustainable funding stream,” said York. 

Since the program began in November of 2013, more than 300 organizations have been certified as Service Enterprises. Locally, GCN member and HandsOn affiliate Volunteer Macon has been training and certifying Service Enterprise nonprofits, and HandsOn is actively seeking more partners to work as coaches and trainers.

Elsewhere, “Networked Nonprofit” guru Beth Kanter and digital media strategist Laura Novig led a workshop on designing training sessions that people will “actually use”; Kanter and Novig encouraged trainers to keep audiences engaged with moments for sharing with fellow participants (what they call a “Share Pair”), taking time to field questions, and plenty of breaks. They also tackled new techniques like webinars, advising facilitators to treat them “less like a webinar, more like a talk show.”

Following a busy day of learning, questioning, and networking, PoL treated convention-goers to a dynamic Opening Plenary, featuring opening remarks from PoL Board Chair Neil Bush and President Tracy Hoover, and a welcome from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who said he’d like to call Atlanta “the Capital City of Service,” citing all the national nonprofits that call Atlanta home—American Cancer Society, Boys and Girls Club of America, Habitat for Humanity, the Points of Light Foundation—as well as the Martin Luther King center and the just-opened Center for Civil and Human Rights.

That was followed up by a riveting, inspiring, “once in a lifetime” conversation among three enduring icons of the Civil Rights Movement: Congressman John Lewis, Ambassador Andrew Young, and Reverend C.T. Vivian, led by Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In one especially transcendent moment, Rep. Lewis began quoting the popular Pharell song that had been playing over the loudspeakers minutes before: “You must use the way of love, peace, and nonviolence. You must go out, like King said, and just love the hell out of everybody. You must be happy. You must be like a room without a roof.”

Also on hand was Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation. She used her discussion with Flint, Michigan Mayor Dayne Walling, Georgia Teaching Fellow Bethaney Wright, and filmmaker-CEO Kweku Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela, to tease out the lessons of a new generation’s dedication to service. The plenary ended with a performance from GCN member Youth Ensemble of Atlanta, a Daily Point of Light Award for Atlanta filmmaker and philanthropist Tyler Perry, and a high-energy number from the Booker T. Washington Marching Band, which Perry had helped out with $100,000 for new uniforms.

Day two was another frenzy of activity. The major sessions included a “Global Forum on Disaster Preparedness and Recovery” sponsored by UPS, a town hall for Americorp alumni, and a HandsOn Network Innovation and Social Impact Forum that saw several creative volunteer initiatives competing for a $50,000 grant from J.P. Morgan Chase. The winner, decided backstage by a panel of judges including Laura Turner Seydel of GCN members Captain Planet Foundation and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, as well as friends of GCN Ann Cramer (currently with Coxe Curry & Associates) and Liz Hamburg (of Taproot Foundation), was Hands On Nashville initiative using volunteers to make homes in low-income neighborhoods more energy efficient, saving homeowners much-needed money while improving their quality of life.

Throughout, the Exhibit Hall hosted dozens of nonprofit service providers, including Opportunity Knocks, as well as nonprofits showcasing big new projects—like ToolBank USA and their new Disaster Services unit. Based here in Atlanta, the 53-foot trailer containing $150,0000 worth of equipment is ready to roll out anywhere in the country, anytime it’s needed—and it was, right on the heels of the conference, in the tornado-stricken town of Pilger, Neb. Disaster Services Director Matt Walenciak deployed directly from the Congress Center, setting up shop within 72 hours and lending out over $40,000 in tools for the cleanup and recovery.

The Exhibit Hall stage also hosted a number of compelling talks and performances, from a “Critical Dialogue on Human Trafficking” to a “Conversation on Black Male Achievement” to a “Welcome to Atlanta Celebration” featuring the Youth Villages AmeriCorps Drummers, and Atlanta’s DJ Kemit and the band Yacht Rock Schooner.

Tuesday night saw two different events at the World of Coca-Cola: a networking reception put on by Independent Sector’s NGen, and an innovation showcase called The Civic Accelerator Demo Night, featuring a “Good Frenzy Pitch” contest: a series of three-minute pitches from socially-minded startups competing for prizes from sponsors like CSRwire and NEX Atlanta. GCN member Community Guilds was the winner of Atlanta’s “Most Innovative Venture” for their STE(A)M Truck, a mobile “maker space” that brings a 20 day hands-on problem-solving curriculum to schools across the greater metro area.

Wednesday wrapped up the conference with an early-morning conversation with another cascade of morning sessions at GWCC, including an early-morning conversation with CNCS CEO Wendy Spencer and a Network for Good presentation on the behavioral economics—that is, the hearts and minds—of volunteers, called “Lisa Simpson’s Guide to Social Change.” Later, off-site events took participants on a tour of Civil Rights history in Atlanta, inside CNN studios, to the Sweet Auburn market, along the Atlanta BeltLine, and a number of other local destinations where service has been put into action.

The closing plenary, which took place on Wednesday morning, focused on “Powerful Stories of Change,” featuring a producer from Tyler Perry Studios on the power of storytelling, award winning actress Lynn Whitfield reciting the late Maya Angelou’s famous poem “Still I Rise,” and the founder and chairman of Creative Visions Foundation, Kathy Eldon, who spoke powerfully about her son’s activism and the price he paid for it—killed by the very people he went to help, following a U.S. airstrike. Her message: “You don’t decide to be an inspiration.”

Actress and activist Mira Sorvino also took the stage to talk about the plague of sex trafficking in America and around the world, followed by the CEO of Civic Enterprises, John Bridgeland, who advocated for a national “year of service” for those aged 18 to 28. Kristian Bush of the band Sugarland closed out the proceedings, leaving the audience with the message that “Stories are the most powerful tool for me and you.”

For more on the highlights of the conference, check out Points of Lights’ own recaps here.

Marc Schultz is writer/editor at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits and managing editor for Georgia Nonprofit NOW.

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