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GOOD Q&A: Michelle Nunn

Michelle Nunn runs the largest volunteer network in the nation.


Twenty-one years ago, Michelle Nunn was a recent University of Virginia graduate and a fledgling community activist. Motivated by her life-long zest for civic involvement and a sense of personal responsibility, she co-founded a small organization called Hands On Atlanta. Today, the Points of Light Hands On Network is the largest volunteer organization in the country, and Nunn is at the helm of it all.What does a $20 donation do for Hands On Points of LightFor every $20 that's being donated, we're leveraging significant numbers of volunteer hours. We're helping enable people to put up human capital and create human solutions. We've been doing a lot of work in the Gulf and for every $1 that's invested, we're leveraging $5 of impact, and that is helping people rebuild their homes, helping people file for social security and federal assistance, buying lumber for wheelchair ramps, and buying tutoring supplies. Those dollars are investing in the capacity of people to solve problems across the country and around the world.For our readers who are unfamiliar with Hands On, can you explain what the organization does?We are inspiring, equipping, and mobilizing people to take action that changes the world. We are focused on helping people discover their own power to be change agents in their communities. We have 370 volunteer centers across the country that are mobilizing people and literally putting people to work in everything from delivering meals to people who are homebound, to tutoring and mentoring children, to building wheelchair ramps, to helping people recover their lives on the gulf coast like the one we just had here in Atlanta last week.Can you talk about that experience?Sure. Last week we had a tornado come through-a rare occurrence for the inner city-and it hit a corridor of neighborhoods. We partnered with Home Depot and they had over 100 associates (who had some skilled labor and provided materials), and they went out and tarped 100 homes in one day. The following day, we had torrential storms. So that human capital and that support enabled 100 households to have shelter, secure their belongings, and basically start to recover from a natural disaster.So is it the size of the network that allows you to respond effectively?Yeah, I think it is. We have these local entities that become campaign headquarters for community good-so that people know where they can go in order to make a difference. In a time of disaster, for instance, we're able to quickly mobilize hundreds of people to use their skills and assets to help others. It's both the scale and the deep community roots that enable us to make quick phone calls to neighborhoods where we'd had longstanding relationships and quickly put people on the ground and start making a difference. I think it is that sense of a hub for community good and community activity.When you were a child, did you imagine you'd do this sort of work as an adult?I grew up in Georgia and in Washington D.C., so I had great examples of public servants around me and within my own family. I found the opportunity to give back to be really meaningful. I had the opportunity to mentor while I was in high school and adopt a grandparent, to do a Habitat [for Humanity] build, and to have those early experiences that got me on the path of wanting to do something in the community. When I graduated from the University of Virginia, I met a handful of people who were starting and organization that they had just designated Hands On Atlanta. That had each (12 people) put in $50 to get it started. About 17 years later it involves 100,000 people each year, just in Atlanta, and has grown to encompass this larger international movement.Did you expect it to grow into such a large organization?No. We were really focused on putting together the next projects for the upcoming weekend, like starting a new tutoring program or something. We didn't say, "We should create a national movement. And in 15 years we should have Hands on Shanghai. Hands on Manila." It was much more organic and incremental than that and much more focused on making a difference in our own community. That being said, I think we were able to ride a wave of enthusiasm and tap into a civic nerve of people wanting to give back and make a difference. And, we were lucky enough to not know what we didn't know and be guided by a sense of naïve possibility and idealism.Do you still feel that sense of idealism after all these years?All these years and years? I do. I do. I think it's kind of restored and resuscitated every day when I meet new people who share a sense of possibility and enthusiasm. In some ways there's never been a more exciting time in terms of what's possible for the larger citizenry or in terms of making a difference in shaping our democracy and shaping the trajectory of the world as we think about technology and self organizing.What's the toughest obstacle you face?In the largest sense it is keeping in mind the largest visionary possibilities at the same time as making the trains run on time and keeping things going. You have to keep in mind the visionary transformational possibilities and dedicate enough time and space and energy to that while also maintaining the operational, organizational dimensions of making things work.Are you ever fearful of failure?I think we all have fear of failure. It's fear of not aiming high enough or fear of aiming too high and not setting realistic expectations. We have volunteers who have worked in the gulf coast for the last two years in sometimes daunting circumstances. There are fears around safety and we've had volunteers that have been injured and hurt. We still have encounters with failure and setbacks and anxiety.How do you combat fear/anxiety?You just try to balance being cautious (in the sense of being responsible) with being wildly bold and not letting anxiety overtake a sense of what's possible.How do you measure success?Because we're always looking at the big picture of the scale and impact of what we're trying to achieve on a macro level, it can be easy to forget to take stock in the incremental successes. One of the things we're challenged by organizationally is remembering to celebrate those organizational milestones at the same time that we keep in mind the goals behind transformation in communities around scaled problem solving.What's your definition of good?Good is the transcendence of self in service to others.
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