National-service chief must be grounded in nonprofits

[Editor’s note: A slightly different version of this article appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.]

Pablo Eisenberg
Pablo Eisenberg

Pablo Eisenberg

Maria Eitel’s sudden decision to withdraw her name after President Obama nominated her to become head of the Corporation for National and Community Service came as a surprise to many supporters of public-service programs.

But what was most surprising, and a shock, to many observers was that Eitel, president of the Nike Foundation, was chosen in the first place.

She told The Oregonian newspaper she had only heard she was on the nomination list a week before Obama announced his choice.

Insiders say she beat out people long expected to get the job, including Shirley Sagawa, a veteran corporate executive, and Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University law professor with an impressive resume of important public-service work.

Eitel withdrew her name soon after she was nominated because she said she faced health problems she did not know about when she accepted the nomination.

Her perplexing nomination offers numerous important lessons about how the Obama administration should choose the next nominee.

The next leader will head the corporation at a crucial time in its history, since a law passed this spring authorizes a vast expansion of national-service programs.

As it proceeds, the White House might want to reconsider whatever criteria it uses to select nominees.

One might expect that such standards might include a distinguished record of public service, an impressive history of high-level corporate management, extensive knowledge of the nonprofit world, or strong ties to the Democratic Party and Obama insiders.

Eitel seemingly met none of these criteria.

Her background has largely been focused on public relations and community affairs.

She now directs the Nike Foundation; before that she served in communications and public-relations posts at MCI and Microsoft.

And she was a deputy director of media relations in the White House run by President George H.W. Bush.

In 2008, she contributed $28,500 to the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party, according to the newspaper Youth Today.

But previously she gave campaign donations largely to Republicans.

What was most questionable about her nomination was her long-time affiliation with Nike, the athletic-wear company that has been accused of selling goods manufactured in sweatshops that hire under-age workers, pay them low wages, and provide harsh working conditions.

Eitel was hired by Nike in 1998 to put a good face on the corporation’s record of labor-rights violations throughout the world. Her supporters say she helped the company turn itself around, but her efforts were largely a matter of public relations.

She sought to undermine a coalition of labor unions, student organizations, and nonprofit activists critical of Nike by working with Gap Inc. to establish a rival umbrella group called the Global Alliance for Workers and Communities composed of international companies and nonprofit groups.

During the time she was leader of the foundation, Nike provided $7.8 million to the alliance, which has praised Nike’s efforts to clean up its overseas factories.

While Nike has made some improvements in the conditions of its factories, union activists and other critics say the company is still one of the worst abusers of labor rights in the world.

In a real sense, Eitel’s nomination was a slap in the face of the labor movement, a major supporter of the Obama campaign and a continued ally of Obama’s since he was elected.

Yet the unions and child-labor groups, though angry, remained strangely silent about the selection, either believing it was not a high-priority concern or preferring not to criticize their friends in the Obama administration

Their response was hardly a profile in courage.

According to people knowledgeable about the selection of Eitel, the idea to nominate her came from Michelle Obama’s office.

She and her staff members should have known better.

Eitel’s record should have sent warning signals to the Obama administration that she lacked many of the qualifications for the corporation job.

The Corporation for National and Community Service, the flagship of the public-service movement in the U.S., requires an outstanding chief executive with the vision and management capability to meet the goals of the Serve America Act of 2009.

The agency’s budget of approximately $1.2 billion is expected to increase by about $6 billion over the next five years, assuming Congress allots all the money it provided in the Serve America Act.

Several new service corps established under the new law will focus on the environment, health and conservation issues, making the corporation’s overall operations more complex and challenging.

The organization’s management, which has come under challenge in the past, will need to be tightened and made more efficient.

The White House’s penchant for emphasizing social-entrepreneurship skills as a quality for public service should be cast aside for a much broader approach to recruitment.

This approach should be one that stresses a thorough understanding of the total nonprofit world — including grass-roots organizations — substantial management experience, and an appreciation of the role of nonprofit advocacy and public-policy activities.

The highest standards should determine the selection of the Corporation for National and Community Service’s leader. Nothing less is acceptable.

Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

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