Tapping into America’s volunteer spirit

We need to stir Americans from their oil paralysis. We need to tap into our volunteer spirit of giving to help people in the Gulf. By focusing on helpful tasks, perhaps we can mitigate feelings of helplessness and start attacking people’s problems in a more positive way.

We propose the development of a national volunteer center to coordinate our innate American spirit of wanting to help neighbors in need of help. Such a center can be fueled by a national Web site and telephone hotline that will coordinate what local Gulf communities and states need and match needs to what communities, colleges and universities, companies, churches, volunteer groups and individuals across the country want to give.

Think of it as a free Craigslist for the Gulf that the Obama Administration could set up to bring together the needy with those who want to meet needs. Such an online hub for community action could match and coordinate needs identified by Gulf communities collaboratively and interactively.

There’s no point, for example, for a church group in Little Rock to send a truckload of bottled water to Mobile if folks there really need volunteers to help shrimpers fill out claims forms. And there’s no point in volunteers from Charleston heading to New Orleans if what it needs is bottled water. With the help of a coordination center, the water could go to New Orleans and the volunteers could head to Mobile.

In essence, this national volunteer coordination project can use the coordination power of the Internet to get rid of snafus and send help where it is really needed — both short-term and long-term.

For such an idea to become a reality, local communities affected by the Gulf disaster will have to serve as the drivers of what they want by conducting realistic baseline and ongoing needs assessments to fill and update the national project database. A top-down command from the federal government about what it thinks communities need won’t work. Local buy-in is essential for linking what people need to what people want to give in terms of time, money and goods.

For its part, the federal government can do three things. First, it can drive the coordination project by tasking the volunteer spirit of our big Internet companies, such as Google, Microsoft, Apple or Yahoo, to develop the rich online database that can augment a national Gulf help hotline like those offered by 2-1-1 operations in many metro areas.

Second, it can provide people power — “clipboards on the streets” — to work with Gulf communities, agencies, service organizations and governments to develop needs assessments. Finally, these coordinators can help to integrate local needs into the online database project.

From soiled Louisiana bayous to oiled Florida beaches, Gulf communities are hurting. It would be easier for all Americans to help if there were some coordinated way to share the hurt and fill the needs. It’s time to bring on the power of the Internet to help people help people.

Andy Brack is president of the Center for a Better South in Charleston, S.C. James L. “Skip” Rutherford III is dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Ark.