YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Bush-Inspired Charity Shadowed by Questions : Philanthropy: Charges of wasteful spending practices dim success of the Points of Light Foundation.


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

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

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

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, according to experts on volunteerism.

An examination of financial records by The 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 to host a celebration of community service.

By contrast, only 11% of the foundation's budget has been spent to provide grants for 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 corporations that answered 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% increase in federal appropriations in August after the foundation raided $551,000 from a reserve account to meet its expenses. A $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, 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."

The foundation has tried to build a national service infrastructure through a combination of promotions, publications, conferences, training seminars, recognition awards and financial grants. Proponents say Points of Light provides critical support for a network of 501 local volunteer centers spread across the country.

"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, 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."

Los Angeles Times Articles