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The Corporate Crusaders

Powell wants them in the fight against social problems. Companies are great at making money, but are they right for this job?

By George J. Church

TIME magazine

TIME, April 28 -- Wanted: caring adults to act as mentors, one on one, to disadvantaged kids. Safe places for those youths to hang out and pursue supervised play after school. Immunizations and health care to bolster their bodies; "effective education" to give them marketable skills. Financing and volunteer help to give 2 million youngsters all these services; 5 million others, at least one. Thus helping to a better start in life nearly half the 15 million kids thought now to be "at risk"--of being lost to poverty and crime, though no one puts it that crudely. All in the next four years, and at almost no cost in taxes.

Those sound like the pledges of an especially visionary--or exceptionally pipe-dreaming--presidential candidate. In fact they make up the agenda of that (for now) career White House don't-wannabe, Colin Powell. That's not to say the event won't be presidential. For one thing, he's getting help from some guys named Clinton, Bush, Carter and Ford. Plus, at current count, half the Cabinet and 4,000-odd other bigwigs of various stripes.

All will be on hand in Philadelphia for the Presidents' Summit for America's Future, a three-day combination pep rally and planning session that begins Sunday. It will formally launch an enormous effort to enlist volunteers to save children from being swallowed up into the underclass. Powell has been at it for months and has cajoled or arm-twisted all sorts of organizations, from the Texas state comptroller's office to the National Football League Players Association, into joining the drive.

The big push and the big bucks, however, are supposed to come from corporations. In fact, volunteerism was alive and well in corporate America before Powell arrived on the scene. Yet hundreds of chief executives have been invited to Philadelphia on condition that they pledge resources to design, finance and push employee volunteers to carry out projects that Powell and assistants approve. Samples:

  • Honeywell Inc. proposes to mobilize 8,000 employees to serve as mentors to grade-schoolers, recruit 4,000 volunteers to work with the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity (best known for employing Jimmy Carter as an occasional carpenter) to build affordable housing and talk 1,000 more retirees into working in various children's programs. Honeywell's contribution to educational programs is $20 million.
  • Kimberly-Clark will spend $2 million to help build 37 playgrounds nationwide. The company and a nonprofit contractor named KaBoom! have set up design sites where children can draw or model in Play-Doh the kind of playground they would like. Parents, Kimberly-Clark volunteers and the contractor will work to get the playgrounds built.
  • LensCrafters promises to give free vision care to 1 million people, especially children, by the year 2003. Says CEO David Browne: "If we hit 900,000 instead of a million, we'll be thrilled, and we'll just keep working toward our goal."
  • IBM, working with United Way and AmeriCorps*VISTA, will underwrite computer equipment over the next four years for some 2,000 community, day-care and senior-citizen centers. IBM volunteers will provide training. IBM's estimated cost: $10 million.

Altogether, says Powell, "we have several hundred promises already, and I think that is just the beginning." Although the CEOs do not have any legal obligation to fulfill their pledges, it is unlikely that any of them would care to disappoint the general. "He made it clear that he's suspicious of any photo-op puffery--he wants people to be stuck with their commitment," says Burke Stinson, a spokesman for AT&T. "You couldn't just R.S.V.P. for the summit; you had to submit a new initiative." (Or at least an expanded one, like Honeywell's and LensCrafters'.) AT&T is on the hook for $150 million, to be used to connect 110,000 schools to the Internet--in the full expectation, says Stinson, that Powell will keep after AT&T executives about it.

After the summit, Powell's follow-through will be limited to one day a week in his formal duties as head of the watchdog organization called America's Promise--The Alliance for Youth. But Powell gets plenty of face time with the corporate aristocracy, zooming around the country to give speeches to conventions, boards of directors and sales groups at fees rumored to range as high as $100,000. Nearly every corporate honcho he encounters is a bit in awe of the hero of Desert Storm.

Powell's appeal to the bosses stresses both efficiency and public spirit, mixed in with occasional needling. The call for volunteer projects, he says, "is focused: time, money, management resources. That's attractive to a business person. It's not just giving an oversize check at a dinner." But, he says, many ceos "are struggling, trying to connect their very sophisticated corporate needs and the somewhat depressed communities they're trying to appeal to. I tell them, 'You gotta reach out to people who don't look like you, don't talk like you.'" On one occasion he asked executives of a media company if they had a training program for disadvantaged youths. No, they said; lawyers had warned that they might encounter a liability problem. Powell's reply: "You should tell the lawyers to pound sand!" Powell also works on egos and competitive instincts. "I say, 'So and so has done this. What have you done?'"

None of this will allay the worries of some community activists, who suspect that the volunteer effort is being promoted as a substitute for government social programs. Says Liz Krueger, associate director of the Community Food Resource Center in New York City: "What I fear is the perception that these companies, or the public as a whole, can take the place of radically reduced government assistance." Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York, says, "Volunteerism is never going to replace government subsidy or private philanthropy in supporting essential health and human services."

The bigger question is whether Powell and friends can buck what seems to be a steep decline in the do-good spirit. Corporate donations to charity fell, from 2.1% of pretax profits in the late 1980s to less than 1% in l996, under pressure to produce greater returns to shareholders. Individual donations were down sharply as well. Harris Wofford, head of the parent organization for AmeriCorps, who sold Clinton on sponsoring the summit, believes the public is ready for an ambitious volunteer effort but is looking for leadership. He adds, "Powell becomes the signal that maybe we're really going to do it."

Powell, of course, cannot sneeze these days without exciting speculation about the possible political ramifications. It has not escaped the attention of pols that the groups of local officials and corporate volunteers cooperating on service projects around the country could form the backbone of a superb national-campaign organization.

It is not surprising then that some political strains have surfaced in preparing for the Philadelphia summit. Hillary Clinton complained to her husband that Powell had given her a dismissively curt introduction in taping a TV spot to promote the goals of the summit. For the most part, though, Powell, Clinton and their seconds have been cooperating closely to make the volunteers' campaign a genuinely nonpartisan event.

Clinton has had a long-standing interest in enlisting citizens to tackle social problems, and now he may really need it. His embrace of a radical revision of welfare and his acceptance of a budget-balancing program that will inevitably shrink other social spending make it even more necessary that he grab for all the volunteer help he can get. Says Erskine Bowles, Clinton's chief of staff: "Will it solve all our problems? No. Will it be a step in the right direction? Absolutely."

Beyond that, Powell has built up so much favorable publicity that no politician can afford to stay out of the maneuvering for a share of the spotlight--certainly not Al Gore, who will speak at the formal opening on Monday shortly after the only Republican who beat him in one trial poll pairing for the 2000 race. If Powell resists that race, he will have used the speculation about his future to launch a project for the public good. And if he does run, there are much worse ways to start a campaign.

--Reported by J.F.O. McAllister/Washington and Elaine Rivera/New York

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