Bush-inspired charity a dim point of light

January 10, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Throughout his presidency, George Bush persistently promoted his "1,000 Points of Light" campaign as the antidote for hunger, homelessness and poverty.

The slogan, coined during Mr. Bush's acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention, grew in popularity to become a signature of his administration. Six days a week, Mr. Bush honored someone -- a so-called "Point of Light" -- for performing exemplary volunteer work.

In 1990, while declaring that solutions to some of the nation's most vexing problems lay in the hands of ordinary citizens and organizations -- and not huge government bureaucracies -- Mr. Bush launched a private, nonprofit foundation to motivate every American to engage in community service.

"Points of Light," beamed a White House news release, "are the only solution to our social problems."

Today, the lone remnant of the Bush initiative has the look of a wasteful, Washington-dependent operation. So far, the Points of Light Foundation has received $26.6 million in federal funds -- more than half its budget -- while incurring a wide range of costs that amount to questionable spending, experts in the volunteer industry said.

An examination of financial records by the Los Angeles Times shows that $22.3 million has been spent on glitzy promotions, consultants, salaries, travel and conferences. The expenses include $5.5 million to produce a television advertising campaign and $1.4 million for a celebration of community service.

By contrast, only 11 percent of the foundation's budget has been spent to provide grants to volunteer efforts across the country.

The foundation has fallen well short of private fund-raising goals and attracted scant scrutiny from Congress. Moreover, little oversight has been exerted by chief executives from Arco, Disney, IBM, Time Warner and other organizations who answered Mr. Bush's call to guide Points of Light. Several prominent directors lost interest and rarely attended board meetings, records show.

Despite early plans to remain a small organization, the Points of Light payroll has more than tripled to $4.1 million. Foundation President Richard F. Schubert, who was hired after he resigned under pressure as head of the American Red Cross, is paid $160,000 annually. A 13-member executive management team receives average salaries in excess of $80,000.

"It's crazy," said George Romney, the former Michigan Republican governor and one of 13 original foundation directors. "I think they've built up too big a budget. I've indicated my alarm and the need to cut back."

Susan J. Ellis, an expert and author of nine books on volunteerism, added: "There's been tons of money wasted, just wasted . . . and I don't think they can show a lot of people have volunteered."

From the outset, top leaders of the foundation vowed to phase out their reliance on government money. Instead, the organization has grown increasingly dependent on federal funds.

Congress awarded Points of Light a 30 percent increase in federal appropriations in August after the foundation raided $551,000 from a reserve account to meet its expenses. The $6.5 million annual subsidy is expected to provide about two-thirds of the foundation's future budgets.

The increase was secured by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., a former neighborhood social worker and ex-chairwoman of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that doles out federal money to independent agencies.

A supporter of the foundation's work, Ms. Mikulski pledged in June that "no matter how skimpy my appropriation is, I intend to fund the Points of Light to stay the course, to keep the momentum going and to keep this energy and this vitality for sure."

Proponents say Points of Light provides critical support for a network of 501 local volunteer centers across the United States.

"I think they are having an impact," said Sue Vineyard, who publishes a national newsletter on volunteerism. "They are answering a need that has been around a long time."

In response to questions submitted to his Houston office, Mr. Bush praised the foundation. He said the staff and directors "deserve a lot of credit for the good work they have done through the last few years. As many of our nation's problems persist, I am grateful that the Points of Light Foundation is finding more and better ways for Americans who want to serve their communities to do so."

Foundation administrators cite such accomplishments as co-sponsoring an annual "Make a Difference" day that attracted 527,000 participants last year; encouraging more than 3,000 businesses to enlist their employees in community-service projects; starting a pilot program in six cities that has recruited 4,000 families; and soliciting $136 million in free TV air time to promote volunteerism.

"Do something good," implore the award-winning ads. "Feel something real."

However, Points of Lights officials concede they have no hard evidence that their efforts have led to an actual increase in community service.

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