Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Store Next Door: Volunteer Service and the Small Business

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama addressed the National Volunteer and Community Service Conference at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, there kicking off the President’s ambitious new service program, United We Serve. The initiative, conceived as a grassroots antidote to the devastating effects of the economic downturn, is a twelve-week long nationwide enterprise designed to muster support for existing volunteer organizations, and assist in the creation of new ones.

In a modern touch, conference organizers in San Francisco launched a tech-savvy effort to transmit the proceedings to the public via Twitter feeds, webcasts and site links. As a result, I received live, real-time web updates, enabling me to follow the event, even stream Michelle’s remarks and various other presentations at the conference.

Prior to her keynote address, however, the First Lady - joined by Maria Shriver and a host of other generous volunteers - spent much of the morning assisting the construction of a new playground at nearby Bret Harte Elementary School in Bayview-Hunters Point, a historically underprivileged neighborhood of San Francisco.

And the effort didn’t end with that playground, or even the completion of the conference. Reports pouring out from the event have kept myself and a motivated web community appraised of the evolving impact of the President’s initiative. The most recent dispatch came from, whose blog outlined the major themes of the conference. One in particular caught my attention: the notion that service is not only the domain of government and non-profits, rather a product of cross-pollination with the private sector.

To be certain, the vast majority of last week’s conference participants came from the ranks of government sectors and non-profits, but the conference also featured a CEO roundtable in which corporate businesses expressed the value of employee volunteerism in their philanthropy strategies. And it’s easy to understand why organizers invited these high-profile CEOs to participate: they lend a splash of heightened visibility to the event. It’s also simple to see why corporations might find the opportunity attractive: the investment of time and energy pays a sunny PR dividend.

Yet to my eye, one question remains – why weren’t small business leaders included?

Indeed, businesses of every size have unique resources when it comes to solving local problems. Small businesses account for 70% of the work force, providing the largest pool of volunteers for just this sort of community-level initiative. To boot, they often possess a more direct connection to their employees, more easily engaging a greater percentage of them in the volunteer effort. They are more versed in and more impacted by local needs, and can better identify and tackle urgent causes. Most importantly, small businesses are… well, small, and often steered by a tighter, more compact and unilateral management structure. As a result, they are more nimble, quicker to allocate resources and manpower.

And yet this group has not been utilized as a potent force for social change. Still, if the program was conceived as a dynamic, constantly evolving effort, predicated on individual and local involvement, why not encourage your neighboring small businesses to dig in?

Chris Golden of MyImpact.Org has the details:

“Service got a lot of attention this week, but it is an imperative that the news and attention does not stop now. There are just over 11 weeks remaining in the United We Serve initiative. Organizations can register their projects at Volunteers can search for opportunities there, on a database powered by And those wanting to connect with others, share stories and best practices, and inspire others to become involved can create a profile at

It’s time to widen the effort to include small business. As leading entrepreneurs, they can provide unique innovation not just to local economic growth, but also toward community projects. Michelle Obama and Maria Shriver can’t publicize every playground construction project, so all across America, non-profits and corporate volunteers are chipping in to build up empty sand lots like the one in San Francisco. They should rightly be recognized. But let’s not forget the nearest neighbor, the small business right next door.

by Lalia Helmer and Blair Kroeber

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