PolitiFact: Nunn’s campaign misses badly on Points of Light claim

This article was edited for length. To see a complete version and its sources go to www.politifact.com/georgia/.

Points of Light is “the world’s largest volunteer organization.”

television ad now airing from Michelle Nunn’s U.S. Senate campaign

President George H. W. Bush spoke at his inauguration in 1989 of “individuals and community organizations spread like stars through the nation doing good.”

Out of that vision came the nonprofit Points of Light. And out of Points of Light came Michelle Nunn, a Georgia native with a do-gooder resume, political pedigree and desire to be the state’s next U.S. senator.

In a new television ad, Nunn, a Democrat, criticizes the business tactics of millionaire David Perdue, her Republican opponent in the race to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

The TV ad begins by introducing Nunn as “CEO of the world’s largest volunteer organization.”

That line gave pause to a PolitiFact reader, who contacted us to say he was pretty confident that the International Red Cross, not Points of Light, holds that distinction.

We truthfully had no idea but promised to investigate.

First, a little on the very different work undertaken by the two nonprofits.

The Red Cross, the world’s largest humanitarian organization, promotes blood donations and is on the scene when disaster strikes, offering food, clothing and temporary housing assistance.

Points of Light, Bush’s brainchild, mobilizes volunteers through a network of 250 volunteer action centers worldwide, through its programs for youth and national service alumni, and through its partnerships with thousands of companies and nonprofits.

Nunn, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, has been its CEO since 2007, when it merged with the Hands on Network, a nonprofit she helped create and ran. She’s on leave from Points of Light while campaigning.

On its website, Points of Light says it had 4 million volunteers in 2012.

By contrast, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies shows a volunteer force worldwide of about 17 million, including 501,208 in North America. (We got that data by adding up country-by-country data we found on its website.)

Benoit Matsha-Carpentier, a spokesman for the organization in Geneva, Switzerland, confirmed the accuracy of our math. He provided a Red Cross PowerPoint presentation, showing the organization had 17.1 million volunteers around the globe in 2012.

So how can Points of Light claim to the “world’s largest volunteer organization?”

Points of Light routinely provides a much more nuanced description of its work, although the campaign pointed us to at least two instances — one in 2007 and one in 2012 — where the nonprofit did refer to itself as the “world’s largest volunteer organization.”

Currently, on its website and elsewhere, Points of Light is identified as “the largest organization in the world dedicated to volunteer service.”

It’s a title the group is confident it can claim.

“We are unaware of any other organization solely dedicated to volunteer service that is using such a wide range of assets to increase the number of volunteers in the world and the impact of the work they do,” said Stefanie Weiss, a Points of Light spokeswoman.

Tom Pollak, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Center for Nonprofits and Charitable Organizations, said the ad’s description of Points of Light “doesn’t strike me as patently disingenuous or deceptive.”

But he said Points of Light’s description of itself as the “the largest organization in the world dedicated to volunteer service” seems more accurate and “a little less subject” to being misconstrued.

Data on volunteerism should be viewed with some skepticism, Pollak said. That’s because some people can be involved in long-term volunteering. Others may be involved in a single event, such as a weekend helping to build a home for a needy family, and the organization may not be keeping careful track of the number of participants, he said.

Relying on data reported by nonprofits on their federal tax forms, Pollak was able to provide us with a list of the 25 nonprofits reporting the highest number of volunteers, nationwide. No. 1 was the American Heart Association with 22 million volunteers, followed by the Muscular Dystrophy Association Inc. with 15 million.

Pollak said he wasn’t aware of information available to do a similar comparison on a worldwide scale. And the Red Cross’ 17.1 million volunteers doesn’t appear to be a record just based on the numbers U.S. organizations use.

So where does that leave us?

Points of Light has a unique mission carved out by Bush — mobilizing volunteers around the world. Nunn has used her stewardship of the nonprofit to burnish her leadership credentials in the race against businessman Perdue.

But her political ad undercuts how Points of Light describes itself on its website — as “the largest organization in the world dedicated to volunteer service.”

That’s substantially different from the world’s largest volunteer organization.

We rate the ad statement as Mostly False.