How the Points of Light Institute Works

The Points of Light Institute is one of the largest nonprofit networking organizations in the U.S.
The Points of Light Institute is one of the largest nonprofit networking organizations in the U.S.
Geoff Manasse/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

If you want to be a catalyst for civic change, or if you're just looking for a useful way to fill up your free time, nonprofit organizations are an excellent place to get started. It is the goal of numerous nonprofits to mobilize volunteers in a fight against poverty, and there are many ways you can help.

You should begin your quest by checking out one of the largest nonprofit networking organizations in the United States, the Points of Light Institute (PLI). Points of Light, a national service organization, unites thousands of volunteers and hundreds of programs to provide support for nonprofit groups and service opportunities for volunteers. As a nonprofit organization, any money earned by PLI's programs is used to fund those same programs and other service initiatives.


 PLI has volunteers working hands-on to improve family living, schools and other community-based organizations. And with a couple hundred plus service locations and opportunities in all 50 states (and more than half a dozen countries) the odds are good that you can find something that suits your interests and skills. But if you can't find the opportunity that is right for you, don't worry: PLI can also provide you with the necessary resources for starting your own service initiative [sources: AmeriCorps Alums, Points of Light].

In these next few pages, you'll learn how the Points of Light Institute first began, what its programs do to serve the community and how you can become one of its volunteers.

A few years ago two organizations merged to form the Points of Light Institute. To find out how this mega-sized volunteer network got its start, check out the next page.

Judging by the name you may think at first that the Points of Light Institute (PLI) is just a school. However, education on philanthropy is only one way in which this volunteer network is taking strides against poverty in the United States.

Originally called the Points of Light Foundation, the institute was formed after a merger between the HandsOn Network and the Points of Light Foundation in 2007. The organization's main goals include citizen action, civic infrastructure and campaigns for impact [sources: AmeriCorps Alums, Points of Light].

Today, the Points of Light Institute is comprised of three business units: The HandsOn Network, the MissionFish and the Civic Incubator. For each of these units, the overall goal is to enact social change in an effort to diminish poverty in America. The long-term goals of all three sectors are the same. Each business unit runs programs for improving the quality of education and quality of life for people living in low-income situations [source: Points of Light].

However, each unit takes a different approach to accomplishing these goals and each markets its service opportunities to slightly different target audiences. Some programs work directly with nonprofit organizations to produce funding and develop program strategies, while others hone in on specific projects and match volunteers with specialized positions. Detailed information on each of these three PLI sectors is included later in this article, so if you're looking for a unique volunteering opportunity, make sure to keep reading.

The HandsOn sector of the Points of Light Institute is home to programs that bring volunteers together from coast to coast and sometimes across international borders. To find out more on how this massive service network operates, see the next page.

The HandsOn Network chose the name HandsOn for a reason -- the mantra of this Points of Light Institute business unit is to provide the tools necessary for making positive change in the world. Past projects have included wheelchair ramp installations, watershed construction and the implementation of tutoring programs.

Comprised of nearly 250 volunteer action centers, the HandsOn Network has partners reaching out to locations in all 50 states, as well as in 10 countries. It's the largest volunteer network in the nation. HandsOn is responsible for connecting volunteer programs with tools for success and for connecting volunteers with programs that need them. The network sponsors programs for impoverished families, communities, businesses, schools and more [source: HandsOn].

Some of HandsOn's more recognizable, nationwide programs include:

  • AmeriCorps Volunteers to Service America (VISTA) - An organization founded in 1965 that takes on full-time volunteers who donate at least one year of their time to fighting poverty in America. Since VISTA's inception, it has attracted more than 170,000 volunteers [source: AmeriCorps].
  • Earned Income Tax Credit Initiative - This is a federally run grant program that provides financial assistance to families with incomes significantly below the national poverty line. And since this program began in the late '90s, the EITC Initiative has relied on local volunteers to run its service centers [source: Points of Light].
  • HandsOn Schools - The goal of this service program is to improve the learning conditions of grammar schools throughout the United States. Through this initiative, schools are renovated, and equipped with better technology and programs that support civic learning. Just a handful of the cities where schools have improved because of HandsOn volunteers include: Baton Rouge, LA; Buffalo, NY; Minneapolis, MN; Fontana, CA; and Phoenix, AZ [source: HandsOn Schools].

By definition, nonprofit organizations don't make any money. But even nonprofits need funds to keep active. To find out how nonprofits can turn a quick profit, see the next page.

MissionFish works with a section of eBay to provide donation support for nonprofit organizations. The MissionFish network was created in 2000 as an online fundraising tool for receiving and selling in-kind donations. Through the partnership of MissionFish and eBay Giving Works, nonprofits are able to accept in-kind gifts from anyone via the Internet. Donations of any type can be given or received in the United States or the United Kingdom, which opens the realm of opportunity for nonprofits with limited resources. Another unique function of this system is that eBay users can choose to donate the money from any sale to the nonprofit of his or her choice [sources: eBay Giving, MissionFish].

And on the flipside, nonprofits can also raise funds by selling well-intentioned gifts for which they have no use. The organization not only keeps 100 percent of the sale, but it also gets free advertising. Along with every item posted on eBay Giving Works is the organization's logo, mission statement and a link to the organization's Web site [source: MissionFish].

The first step to using eBay Giving Works is to become a registered nonprofit organization with MissionFish. Any member of your group can complete this process online in a few simple steps. In order to register as a nonprofit account your organization needs the following:

  • Valid e-mail address
  • Mission statement
  • Digital logo
  • Voided organization check
  • Letter or other proof of tax deductibility

If you're not part of an organization, but would like to donate or purchase goods in support of a nonprofit, you don't need a special Giving Works eBay account. All you need to do is shop on eBay or eBay Giving Works and look for sales marked with the blue and yellow ribbon icon.

Something's cooking in the newest addition to the Points of Light Institute. See the next page for information on the Civic Incubator.

In an incubator, an organism has protection and warmth so that it can grow. Think of the Civic Incubator -- Points of Light Institute's (PLI) newest unit -- as a safe haven where innovative ideas and social networks can spread like a contagion. Two of the main focuses of the Civic Incubator unit include sustainability and efficiency through research. Through the Incubator, civic engagement will be promoted through service networks around the world.

One aspect that makes this business unit unique when compared to the HandsOn Network and the MissionFish is the Incubator's role as an evaluator of current PLI programs. As a unit grounded in sustainable, innovative thinking, members of the Civic Incubator have the ability to take current PLI operations and advise their leaders of techniques that will increase efficiency [source: AmeriCorps Alums].

Currently, the Incubator runs a network called AmeriCorps Alums -- which connects more than 500,000 alumni of AmeriCorps volunteer programs across the nation. Another growing initiative of the Incubator is the Faith Institute. Not all initiatives run by PLI have such direct ties to religion -- making this initiative unique to the Incubator. The main function of the Faith Institute will be forming partnerships between people and organizations of diverse faiths [sources: AmeriCorps Alums, Points of Light].

Got a volunteering itch you need to scratch? See the next page for information on how you can volunteer through the Points of Light Institute.

The most challenging part of volunteering is deciding where you should go and what you should do, as the qualifications are easy to meet for many service opportunities, and the opportunities themselves are literally endless. Through the Points of Light Institute (PLI) alone, there are hundreds upon thousands of ways you can help fight poverty in your community.

In fact, many of the programs sponsored by the PLI have federal funding, which allows them to reach a broad spectrum of people in cities all over the United States. For volunteers, this national presence makes finding a service opportunity that much easier. There are hundreds of action centers run by the HandsOn Network that you can join, or to see a list of programs run by the PLI click here.

You can also narrow your search by location. To find a volunteer center near you, visit the institute's Web site where you can search for centers according to the state or zip code they are located in [source: Points of Light].

And if you can't find anything you like there, try searching the national site sponsored by the Points of Light Institute,, where you can create a personal account and become a listed volunteer. On, you can search for service opportunities based on the skills listed in your profile, sign up for opportunities you like and receive e-mails updates about new opportunities. And a service-hour log connected to your profile may come in handy for students who need to track their volunteering time for course credit [sources: 1-800-Volunteer, Points of Light].

If you want to know more about how you can become a part of this growing nonprofit network, see the next page for links to more information.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • "Home." (Accessed 5/20/09).
  • 2009 National Conference on Volunteering and Service. (Accessed 5/20/09).
  • AmeriCorps Alums. "Welcome!" (Accessed 5/19/09).
  • AmeriCorps. "Americorps VISTA." (Accessed 5/20/09).
  • Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). "National Conference on Volunteering and Service." (Accessed 5/19/09).
  • eBay Giving Works. (Accessed 5/20/09).
  • HandsOn Network. (Accessed 5/19/09).
  • HandsOn Network. "HandsOn Schools." (Accessed 5/20/09).
  • MissionFish. "Home." (Accessed 5/19/09).
  • Points of Light Institute. "Home." (Accessed 5/19/09).
  • Points of Light Youth Leadership Institute. "Home." (Accessed 5/19/09).