From On Philantropy

As a tantalizing opening to the ServiceNation summit conference convening today in New York City, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain appeared at Columbia University last night to lay out their views on public service. They appeared back-to-back, sharing the stage only momentarily, to answer questions from Judy Woodruff of PBS and Richard Stengel of Time Magazine.

Earlier in the day, Senators McCain and Obama had appeared together at ceremonies at the World Trade Center marking the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, honoring those lost in New York as well as at the Pentagon and in the crash of Flight 93 in Shanksville, PA.

ServiceNation is a campaign calling upon more Americans to volunteer as individuals, and to work as a group to encourage the President and Congress to “enact a new era of voluntary service and civic engagement in America.” In their responses to the interviews last night, both Obama and McCain expressed strong support for the concept of service, evincing subtle differences in their approaches.

John McCain, for example, centered the focus of volunteer service at the national level, echoing John F. Kennedy’s call to Americans to serve their country, while Sen. Obama spoke to the value of working at the community level. He referred to his own experience as a community organizer in Chicago after law school “no disrespect to the president of this fine institution” [Columbia, which he attended] as “the best education I had.”

Judy Woodruff, in questioning John McCain earlier, had asked if he had indicated to his own campaign that derisive comments about the work of a community organizer at the Republican convention were not the type of language he’d like to hear in a campaign discussion. McCain responded by pointing out that he’d called upon Obama to meet him in a series of town hall debates, and if Obama had accepted his challenge “the tone of this campaign would be better.”

Asked if he would sign legislation introduced by Sens. Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch to triple the size of Americorps and the Peace Corps, McCain said he would.

One area where Obama focused his call to action at the national level, unlike McCain, was in saying that he would have urged Americans to reduce their dependence on foreign oil in the weeks following the September 11 attacks, rather than “tell Americans to go shopping,” a criticism often voiced about President Bush.

Overall, however, one of the main differences in Obama and McCain’s approach to volunteer service is in the level of federal government involvement. McCain stated his reluctance to have the government take on roles that voluntary, faith-based organizations, or the private sector, could do better. “I don’t think if FedEx and Target were in charge,” referring to FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina, “we’d had had ice trucks wind up in Maine.”

Obama outlined a different relationship between the government and voluntary sector,
saying that the federal government should encourage greater opportunities to serve. In addition to programs like Americorps and the Peace Corps, where he also supports expansion, he’d create an Energy Corps to increase our energy efficiency and mobilize seniors – a resource McCain had also called “underutilized. “The government can provide avenues,” Obama said, also voicing support for college tuition assistance to incentivize volunteers. “ The president can inspire people to get outside themselves and get involved, something I think I can do as president,” Obama added, citing his election campaign as evidence that large numbers of Americans were willing and eager to give their time.

To get a real sense of what the atmosphere was like at last night’s forum, and follow today’s conference on ServiceNation, we invite you to read the blog posts from onPhilanthropy’s Future Leaders in Philanthropy (FLiP) corps of bloggers:

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About the Author

Susan Carey Dempsey, Editor-in-Chief of onPhilanthropy, is an Executive Vice President of Changing Our World, Inc., a leading philanthropic consulting firm counseling nonprofits on successful fundraising strategies. She can be reached at