Hands On founders battled 'greed is good' philosophy

Volunteer organization celebrates 20-year anniversary

Elise Eplan, busy 20 years ago as a newly minted investment banker, had trouble finding time to volunteer at service organizations.

“It was the end of the ’80s with ‘greed is good’ and all of that and there were many of us who were rebelling and saying that is not us. We still have a heart and a soul and we care about this city,” she said.

But Eplan’s and her friends’ work schedules clashed with nonprofits’ programs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays

“There was nothing flexible enough for my peers,” she said.

So she and 11 acquaintances mixed practicality with idealism and came up with a more organized and flexible business model for volunteering.

The 12 volunteered as a group. If an agency needed a weekly volunteer, rather than one person having to make a weekly commitment, the group worked together to fill that slot. That gave them flexibility. They also offered to work weekends, promising agencies they could supply a number of people.

The idea, which began in that informal meeting in Eplan’s Atlanta apartment in 1989, has turned into the largest volunteer coordinating agency in the U.S.

Hands On Atlanta became a one-stop shop to bring together volunteers and nonprofits and has grown to include more than 250 affiliates across the U.S. and 11 international cities. Its volunteers delivered more than 30 million hours of service valued at $615 million in 2008. Volunteers in Atlanta have worked more than 6 million hours since 1989.

The agency helps support more than 30,000 projects a month at nonprofit, faith, education and community-based organizations. Its biggest events are Hands On days across the country, when volunteers take on projects like planting trees, painting schools and tutoring children.

Kent Alexander, one of the founders, said, “I never expected to see Hands On Singapore or Tokyo or Hands On Manila. We just wanted to do a lot for Atlanta and thought there was a pent-up demand. We just did not realize how great that demand was.”

After determining their system worked, they invited friends to join them. Their numbers went from 12 to about 60. They began to get a few small grants to help with postage, phones and other costs.

With success came new problems. They were growing beyond what they could manage out of Eplan’s apartment and began looking for someone to run the organization.

Deva Hirsch, one of the founders, said, “We had heard about this great young woman, Michelle Nunn, who was considering going to law school but had her heart in nonprofits.”

She and Eplan met Nunn for lunch.

Hirsch laughed as she remembered telling Nunn, “We can pay you $7 an hour for about 10 hours a week.”

Nunn was weighing going to law school and a Peace Corps assignment. She did not have to think twice about the Hands On offer, she said.

She told them yes.

“It did feel like a big adventure,” Nunn said.

And there were the perks.

“You know, I was an executive director,” she said. “Of course, shortly after I realized it was a glorified internship.”

Nunn led the organization through the founding of the national Hands On Network in 1992 and through the agency’s merger with the Points of Light Foundation in 2007. She now is CEO of the foundation, which is the umbrella organization for Hands On affiliates.

Hands On has gone from its first grant 20 years ago of $2,500 to Points of Light’s $39 million budget. Collectively, all Hands On affiliates have a budget of $180 million, Nunn said.

Eplan and other founders credit Nunn’s vision, tenacity and spirit with helping grow the organization from 12 friends to one with international impact and tens of thousands of volunteers.

Eplan, who moved from banking to help run the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and now is a nonprofit consultant, said, “At our first Hands On Day, we had 200 people and we were overwhelmed. That to us was a huge success. We could never had envisioned it would be dozens of Hands On organizations across the U.S. and around the world.”

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