Public Papers

Remarks to the American Society of Association Executives


Neil, thank you, sir. Thank you all. Thank you, Neil Milner, chairman, for that warm welcome and challenge. And Bill [Taylor], the president, the other president here today, thank you, sir. [Laughter] Let me just say I really am pleased and privileged to be with this group of people that do so much. You know, I really feel comfortable talking to this group because most people think I've been free associating for years. [Laughter]

I heard that last year I accidentally caused panic among your executive directors. They thought I pledged no new faxes. [Laughter]

Believe it or not, there are still some Americans who don't know what the ``association for associations'' is. That's why next week they're doing a bit on you for TV's ``Unsolved Mysteries.'' [Laughter]

Because really, only your organization is big enough and broad enough to include the Leafy Greens Council and the Association of Tongue Depressors. [Laughter] That happens to be a fact.

But I guess it's only natural for the heads of organizations like yours to get together themselves. Some people think of our great country as a nation of rugged individualists alone against the odds. And that is part of the American tradition, but only a part. There's another tradition, a tradition as old as America itself, as old as Pilgrims and the Mayflower Compact, as old as the pioneers who settled the West. It's the tradition that Tocqueville described more than 150 years ago when he came to America, observed the scenes, and wrote that ``Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.''

That shouldn't surprise us, because the act of association is nothing less than democracy in action: individuals translating common interests into a common cause. And you know, today we see the power of democracy, and isn't it an exciting time to be alive, seeing this change in Eastern Europe and in Managua, Nicaragua? We see that power of democracy and we see fresh evidence every day that the democratic ideal we cherish, the idea we call America, is alive everywhere: in the Revolution of 1989 that brought down the Berlin Wall and brought freedom to Eastern Europe; here in our own hemisphere, in the great victories for democracy in Panama and then again in Nicaragua -- and millions of people now enjoying the freedoms that America has known for two centuries.

Here at home, we've got to see what these transforming changes in the world mean for us. And those changes carry a challenge, a challenge to us to find in our freedoms new ways to solve the problems that threaten our society and our continued leadership in the whole world community. Look around at the problems we face: drug abuse, hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, despair in our inner cities, the breakdown of the family. There's a role, a critical role for government in finding solutions, but we know government doesn't always have the answers. If we could eliminate these problems, solve them once and for all with more programs, more bureaucracy, these problems would have disappeared a long time ago.

The fact is, government isn't the only organized entity out there with the powers to change things, the power to make a difference. Everyone in this room is well aware of the advantages of association. But I don't know whether you are really aware of the full extent of your own power, of the resources, the expertise, the potential energy your organizations can bring to bear on these problems -- your ability to help solve community problems.

I know most associations are already active in community service, and I've heard about some of the wonderful work being done: the Medical Association of Atlanta, working after hours to provide free medical care to the homeless; by the Oregon Remodelers Association out there in Portland, Oregon, in Project Pride, a program to do home repairs for the low-income elderly; by the Hotel Association of New York, with its ongoing commitment to donate surplus food to feed the hungry. These are just three, just three of countless community service projects that your associations are engaged in, a commitment of time and talent mirrored in similar community efforts by millions of Americans across the country.

In fact, one study in 1988 found that Americans who volunteered in formal organizations gave almost 15 billion hours valued at an estimated 0 billion. Now that's tremendous, but it's just the tip of the iceberg, just a fraction of all the good works we are capable of. Because the fact is, coping with the problems we face is within our power. There is no problem in America that is not being solved somewhere. Think about it: the programs I've just mentioned -- New York, Atlanta, Portland -- thousands more. Think about ways that your organization, every one of your members, can make this mission of serving others your very own.

The story I want to tell you today -- a story that Martin Luther King, Jr., told in his speech he made the night before that terrible day in Memphis, 22 years ago -- it's a story about serving others and the courage that takes. It's a familiar story about the Good Samaritan and the stranger he helped. But there's another part of the story we don't always remember. Before the Good Samaritan stopped that day, two other men saw the injured stranger and passed him by. And Dr. King thought long and hard about it, and he used to ask himself: Why didn't the others stop to help? And Dr. King came up with some good reasons: They didn't stop because they were too busy, had more important work waiting in Jerusalem of far more consequence than helping one unfortunate man; and so, on they went.

And then one day, Martin Luther King put himself in their shoes. At the age of 30, on his very first trip to the Holy Land, he and his wife, Coretta, traveled that road from Jerusalem to Jericho. And Dr. King saw the story of the Good Samaritan in a new light. That road starts off more than 1,000 feet above the sea level and ends in Jericho 2,000 feet below sea level -- a twisting road, full of blind curves. He imagined the road 2,000 years ago, each curve a perfect ambush for robbers. And at the moment, Dr. King realized why the two men didn't stop. It had nothing to do with the reasons he had imagined. They didn't stop because they were afraid.

The way Dr. King imagined it, one asked himself: ``If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?'' And he went on about his way. But then the Good Samaritan came along and he asked himself a different question: ``If I don't stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'' And he asked himself that question, and he found the courage to stop, the courage to help, the courage to serve.

So which question, then, do we ask ourselves about going down to the soup kitchen in that dangerous neighborhood; about stopping on a dark street to help a homeless man; about reaching out to those desperate kids out there, kids who have no home life, who are hooked on drugs, who live a nightmare we can't begin to imagine? Doing any of these things isn't easy. Every one takes an act of courage. But unlike the Good Samaritan, we don't have to act alone. Each one of you understands the power of collective action: how much we can get done when we work together, pool our resources, combine our talents.

And don't think it won't take courage. It's going to take courage to go back to your member organizations, back to their CEO's and boards of directors, and suggest that they place community service at the center of their agenda. It's going to take courage to insist that community service has a place at the very heart of every organization. It will take courage to make each one believe that from now on in America, any definition of a successful life must include serving others. But that's just exactly what I'm asking you to do.

Today, I want to lay down some challenges, challenges to associations all over America to take up community service. First, build on a firm foundation. Find out what's working in your industry, in your profession, in your community; let your members know which community service programs are most effective; and then, challenge them to make those programs the blueprint for their own efforts. Find new ways to use existing assets. I understand that one of the ASAE's great strengths is its allied societies structure -- 69 State and local organizations, thousands more association executives. And I'm asking each of these allied societies to take the lead in their community for solving social problems, become what we call Points of Light action groups.

And second, set a target of 100-percent participation in community service. Challenge your constituents to call on every employee and member at every level of every organization, from the CEO on down to the newest hire, to make community service their personal mission.

And finally, a third challenge -- recognize those members who are what I like to call Points of Light. I've belonged, as many of you have, to many associations in my life, and I know one of the things you do best is to recognize outstanding performance. And so, I ask you to turn the spotlight on community service in your newsletters, your magazines, at your annual meetings -- on individuals who give 110 percent helping people in need and on those organizations who demonstrate 100-percent participation in community service.

I'm counting on you, each one of you, to take these challenges to heart. People in this room represent thousands of associations, organizations of all sorts and sizes, a combined membership of 100 million Americans. And so today, I'm asking you: Channel that energy into community service, tap that power, and transform a nation.

Once again, my thanks for all you are doing and all that you're going to do. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you all very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 2:12 p.m. in Hall A at the Washington Convention Center.