Hundreds of thousands of people who've visited the Web site, thousands more who've called the toll-free number, and a bevy of nonprofit groups wondering how they fit in. For all of them, the biggest question about the USA Freedom Corps is -- what now?
Reactions to the initiative range from heartfelt inspiration to bona fide irritation. And smack in the middle are a whole lot of people just shrugging and saying "so what?"
Bob Arnold, associate director for capacity building and evaluation for Church World Service's emergency response program, was perusing a Federal Emergency Management Agency course on volunteers. It outlined past presidential initiatives on volunteerism.
It turns out every President for the last 40 years has proposed some kind of volunteer program -- yet the rate of volunteerism in the U.S. hasn't budged since the 1980s.
So the USA Freedom Corps isn't what Arnold considers groundbreaking. "To me it's basically in the tradition of what President Clinton tried to do with AmeriCorps," said Arnold. "So I'm not particularly wary but I'm not jumping up and down either."
If the USA Freedom Corps ends up with the same structure as AmeriCorps -- and it looks that way to many -- at least people will know what to expect. Many nonprofits have successfully worked with AmeriCorps participants, said Vin Reilly, who helped coordinate volunteers for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in New York City in the wake of Sept 11.
"AmeriCorps is a wonderful idea and a wonderful program -- with a lot of problems," he said. "There is just a huge amount of paperwork associated with that the program. Every nonprofit I know that works with AmeriCorps talks about the pile of paperwork."
Others are questioning Bush's charge to Americans to do 4,000 hours of volunteer service in their lifetime. Where'd the number 4,000 -- about two years -- come from, they wonder. And do the 4,000 hours have to be with the Freedom Corps, or can they be with, say, a local church?
Reilly said giving a number of hours makes volunteerism sound too much like a requirement and not enough of a heartfelt commitment. "It sounds like you're sentenced to community service. It's like a term."
But there are those who think the Freedom Corps could be a perfect outlet for people's desire to help.
"Our reaction is quite different," said Steve Rosenthal, executive director of Cross-Cultural Solutions, a nonprofit that managed more than 5,000 volunteers in New York City in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The organization also sends volunteers abroad to provide humanitarian assistance. "We think it's wonderful that volunteerism has been made a national priority, that there will be mechanisms in place that enable people to volunteer."
Positive as he was, Rosenthal admitted he didn't know exactly know his organization's role in the new Freedom Corps. "We don't know what our role will be but we want to organize to play a lead role," he said.
Is the purpose of the Freedom Corps to recruit people into the existing federal programs currently listed on the Web site? Or is it to encourage volunteerism in general? Either way, where do local nonprofits fit in?
For some, not knowing has become annoying. Susan Ellis, president of a Philadelphia firm that consults on volunteerism in the U.S., has been quoted in philanthropic publications and the national media saying that the president's premise that nonprofits are ready or willing to accept more volunteers is flawed.
Jenkins argues that no thinking or planning has been done to increase the capacity of organizations to involve volunteers more effectively, and that the problem for charities isn't recruiting volunteers -- it's having meaningful work for them to do. By announcing the Freedom Corps without a more detailed action plan, the White House violated a cardinal rule of volunteerism, Jenkins said -- asking people to volunteer and not having an assignment ready.
Jenkins also said the president put his proposal together without consulting his secretary of state, Colin Powell, who served as head of America's Promise, and without consulting the Points of Light Foundation created by his father.
But if that was true, it may not be the case anymore. Rosenthal said he attended a briefing in Washington this week held by the Points of Light Foundation, and that the dialogue was positive and productive.
Rosenthal urged his colleagues in the nonprofit community to wait a little longer. "In the near future more information will be released," he said. "And I'd encourage people to wait and see, then make sure and capitalize on the opportunity."
That opportunity may take the form of money. Bush has proposed spending $560 million next year on the initiative.
Cathy McCann decided not to wait. McCann, vice president of operations for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, joined with other members of the New Jersey Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) to contact the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency overseeing the Freedom Corps.
"On one hand I thought, 'How do you sign people up not knowing what they're doing?' " said McCann. "On the other hand, we thought we'd better get together to decide what we needed help on."
McCann and her colleagues decided they needed help establishing a better donations management system and forming county and city VOADs. McCann is known in the New Jersey and New York disaster response community for effectively managing a torrential influx of volunteers and material good in the wake of Sept. 11.
"I'm still waiting for guidelines about the Freedom Corps," McCann admitted. "But if there's a way to work with the new corps, I'm all for it. We could use the help. We're lacking people. People want to help. They want to know how. Maybe the Freedom Corps is a way all of us can work together. Let's start working on the plan. We can dream dreams, you know?"
Susan Kim, Disaster News Network