Wayne Meisel, Founding President

meisel 2008-credit WVWC photographer.jpg

Wayne Meisel was hired in 1989 by Mr. Bonner as the founding president of the Bonner Foundation, which he led for the first next 21 years.  In his first two years he launched the two programs that continue to define the Bonner Foundation: the Crisis Ministry Program, which funds anti-hunger efforts, and the Bonner Program, which is the largest privately-funded, service-based scholarship program in the country with 3,000 students serving annually at 65+ colleges and universities.

Meisel has been a longtime advocate of service, service learning, and community engagement. Below we trace his career up to the present.

Early Career

In an interview with Bill McKibben published in the November 18, 1985 edition of the New Yorker magazine, Wayne tells the story of how the first service program he started while in college:

“I got cut from the soccer team, and I decided to coach local kids, but there was no youth league in town.  A couple of friends and I decided we’d need maybe thirty people to start one, and we weren’t at all sure we’d be able to get that many.  We decided to set up tables outside several dining halls to recruit students, and we just figured we’d stay out as many nights as it took.  Well, the first night a hundred and fifty people signed up.  Some of them were All Americans and some had never seen a soccer ball, but they all wanted to help.  And this is when it hit me — my idea.  For as long as I could remember, I’d been hearing about the ‘me generation,’ about how college kids ere only interested in their own careers.  But that isn’t true.  They still want to get involved — they just don’t know how to do it.  I call it ‘structural apathy.’ People just need someone to show them how.”

Wayne stayed at Harvard for an extra year to start the House and Neighborhood Development (HAND) program which linked the thirteen Harvard houses with neighborhood schools in Cambridge.   During that time, he attended a regional gathering of campus community service coordinators and saw that there was a need for a more formal and more focused national effort.  


Wayne then decided to meet with the Federal agency, ACTION, and some of the national non-profit organizations that supported volunteer service to seek their help.  In Wayne’s telling: “None of them were interested.  They all told me, ‘We know about students today.’ So I decided to see whether or not I was right.  I wanted to visit a lot of campuses, but I didn’t have a car, so I got some friends to drive me to Colby College, in Maine, and from there I hiked south for several months, stopping at every college along the way.  One college had closed.  I got there, and it was empty—talk about apathy.  Everywhere else, I’d just arrive and ask someone if I could sleep on his floor.  And over the next couple of days I’d track down the chaplain or the newspaper editor or the president and discuss community-service programs. And over and over again the person I talked to would get excited.”

Wayne Meisel and Bobby Hackett profiled in this 1987  News & Observer  article at Duke University, COOL's Southern base.

Wayne Meisel and Bobby Hackett profiled in this 1987 News & Observer article at Duke University, COOL's Southern base.

Soon after the walk, in 1984, Meisel —with his friend Bobby Hackett and mentor Jack Hasegawa — launched the Campus Outreach Opportunity League (COOL) as a platform for students and recent graduates to revive and lead a youth service movement on colleges.  McKibben described the ‘road warrior’ approach Wayne used to launch COOL:  “Last year, he traveled to eight campuses, spending two or more weeks at each and setting up programs that involved thousands of students.  This year, he is working with more than fifty colleges.”  

“Sure, some people thought what I was doing was crazy,” Wayne said. “But I wanted to show students what someone with a little money and strong ideals could accomplish” (Manning, 1985).  As Goodwin Liu observed in his paper reflecting on the origins of the youth service movement:  "This ethic and its supporting organization galvanized old and new efforts into an emergent national movement. COOL helped focus national attention on students who belied the 'me generation' stereotype, and stories about a new wave of student volunteerism began to appear in the press."

Wayne's 'Walk for Action' was covered (belatedly) in an article in The New York Times titled "A Trek for Voluntarism Links Campus Projects." which legitimized his efforts to some while giving COOL much-needed national exposure.  Another NYTimes article titled Filling Big Hopes with Small Grants, quoted COOL's first funder, Richard Magat from the Hazen Foundation describing meeting "Mr. Meisel over breakfast in a Yale University student cafeteria. 'You had to like this kid,'' he said. ''For all his boyish appearance, he's smart. He's an entrepreneur in the best sense, and I applaud that. Most important, he has an idea - and an ideal.' "


This portion of the story is told well on the website of the IMPACT Conference, the successor organization to COOL:  “As the service and civic engagement movement continued to grow, various campuses began investing in the growth of community service and service-learning. Nationwide the movement saw the creation of organizations such as Campus Compact (started in 1985) and Youth Service America (started in 1986). 

“By 1987, COOL was working with over 450 institutions of higher education. Early on, COOL developed model programs, resources, curriculum, and strategies to encourage service on campus. The largest undertaking of COOL was to organize a conference each year that would bring together students from across the country who were involved in their communities and who wanted to network with other students. The COOL Conference started with just a few hundred students at Harvard, and grew to bring together over 1,000 students each year.”

To provide guidance to students leaders and campus staff, Wayne co-wrote important handbooks with two other COOL staff:  

While at COOL, Wayne played a role with Youth Service America to launch what is now known as Global Youth Service Day, which has become the largest service event in the world, an event designed to recognize
and support young people in their efforts to serve their communities.

In 1990 Meisel was appointed by President George H. Bush to serve on the Commission for National and Community Service, which evolved into the Corporation for National and Community Service.  Referring to Wayne as his "youth service mentor," Senator David Durenberger of Minnesota observed in September 13, 1994 remarks published in the Congressional Record: "From that platform, Wayne argued forcefully for greater involvement of young people themselves in the design and management of youth service programs. I agree with Wayne's premise that youth involvement is one of the key elements that will determine the long-range success of these programs in local communities all over America."

During this time, Wayne also served as a charter board member of Teach for America.  And, in 1994, TIME Magazine recognized him as one of the top fifty leaders under forty (see update here). 

start-up years at the bonner foundation

The Bonner Scholars program began with a simple notion: “make college accessible to students who might not otherwise be able to attend and create ways for those students to direct their talents and interests in service to others.”
— Wayne Meisel, 2005

In a 1993 talk with the pioneer class of Bonner Scholars at Berea College, Wayne said that he felt like the first Bonner Scholar.  He spoke of himself as a high school student full of self doubt, and tempted not to work hard in school.  One evening he found himself in a long dinner conversation with Mr. Bonner, who had known Wayne as members of his father's church in Princeton, took the time to encourage Wayne who left the dinner feeling "inspired, challenged and determined to do his best."  That meeting led directly, many years later, to Wayne joining Mr. Bonner to help make the Bonner Foundation a reality.

In a speech he gave at the 15th anniversary of the Bonner Program, Wayne told the story of the night he chose to accept his offer to lead the Bonner Foundation.  He quoted Mr. Bonner's vision of wanting to "displace despair with opportunity and help the person who is hurting."  He explained: "These were the phrases, slogans really, that Mr. Bonner shared with me one winter night when I visited him at their home in 1989.  We were sitting in Mr. Bonner’s library. It was after midnight and we had been talking non-stop since lunch.  He had just asked me if I would work for the Foundation. And, inspired by these simple, broad and biblical visions that Mr. Bonner shared with me, I enthusiastically began my work at the Bonner Foundation."

WayneandGuilford 1991.jpg

Wayne's first year as founding President was amazingly productive.  In that year he conceived of and launched the two programs that continue to define the focus of the Bonner Foundation's efforts.  The Crisis Ministry Program's focus on alleviating hunger grew out of the experiences of Mrs. Bonner who worked closely with their local congregations, first in Florida and later in New Jersey, to reach out to local residents in need of immediate assistance with food and other necessities.  The Bonner Scholars Program responded both to the interests of Mr. and Mrs. Bonner to provide young people with the higher education opportunities neither of them were able to achieve (both started college but were unable to finish due to financial needs), and to Wayne's own experience meeting students on campuses across the country who wished they could engage in more community service but were unable to due to their need to earn money through Federal Work Study or other jobs to pay their tuition expenses.  Berea College in Kentucky, one of the historic "work colleges," inspired Wayne to link financial aid scholarships for Bonner students with their community service commitments.  Wayne put this connection at the haeart of the program when he coined the Bonner Program's motto:  "Access to Education, Opportunity to Serve."

In the 15th Anniversary speech, Wayne notes that “Other than the Bonners, no one had more impact on the Bonner Scholars program than Dr. John Stevenson, the late president of Berea College. Dr. Stevenson came to Princeton in 1990 to meet with Mr. Bonner, an avid supporter of Berea College.  That visit marks the beginning of what we are celebrating today.”  

In celebration of the 25th Anniversary of The Bonner Program, this video was created to share the legacy of Mr. and Mrs. Bonner.

Wayne summarized those early years as follows:  "For the first four years at the Bonner Foundation I was “tutored” nearly every day by Mr. Bonner for several hours, always beginning at 10:00 am in his office. It should be no surprise therefore that we developed words and phrases as slogans to define and communicate our goals and map out direction of the first fifteen years of our journey: a journey that could be described by the following phrases…

  • Access to Education Opportunity to Serve
  • Service as Transformation.
  • Best Practice to Common Practice
  • Common Commitment
  • Everybody, Everyday
  • Service Based Scholarships

20 years of impact

During Wayne’s tenure as president, the Bonner Program grew from one campus with 80 students in 1990 to more than 50 campuses and 2,500 students in 2010.  The vision, core goals, and national reputation for the Foundation and the Bonner Program were established in these years.   So were the national Bonner Student Congress, the Common Commitments, the 5 E’s student development model, and the Bonner Program’s cornerstone activities.

Wayne speaking at a Bonner Summer Leadership Institute.

Wayne speaking at a Bonner Summer Leadership Institute.

Under Wayne’s leadership, the Foundation received three national grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education: 1) to help the initial campuses with their start-up phase; 2) to expand to new schools using the Bonner Leader Program model which leverages Community Service Federal Work-Study funding; and 3) to develop models for a civic engagement academic pathway.  From this third grant Wayne co-wrote Civic Engagement at the Center: Building Democracy through Integrated Co-curricular and Curricular Experiences with Ariane Hoy (AAC&U, 2008).

During his time at the Bonner Foundation, Wayne wrote numerous essays and edited several other publications, including: 

See the Bonner Foundation's history and the Bonner Program's history for more details on Wayne's role in the development of each.

Current Role

After leaving the Bonner Foundation in 2010, Wayne founded and currently serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Faith and Service.  Based out of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois, the Center for Faith and Service works to develop new programs and identify existing resources that support the church to be present and relevant in the lives of young adults.

Wayne's motivation for starting the Center for Faith and Service were similar to those that led him to start the Campus Outreach Opportunity League (COOL) and built on his work with the Bonner Program:  "We have a generation of young people in their 20s and 30s that define themselves by their commitment to service and justice work. The challenge is that many of them, I think most of them, do not believe the church cares about them or the causes they care about. There’s this bubbling fervor and energy and possibility that we just have to figure out how to both tap and how to support, and then for guys like me to get out of the way."

Wayne Meisel, a Presbyterian minister, is helping seminary students across the country create a movement to help change the world. --- Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly http://www.pbs.org/religion

Through a variety of initiatives, the Center partners with seminaries, summer camps, colleges, youth corps, denominations and local congregations to create programs and resources that help young people connect their passions for service and justice with their faith.

Among their best known programs, the Center sponsors the Seminaries That Change the World recognition.  This list recognizes seminaries that demonstrate their commitment to integrate service and justice with faith and theological exploration.  Schools are required to make a commitment to work together to advance our common goal.  These seminaries, together with the Center, work to connect and infuse theological education with service and social justice work, and to collectively challenge stereotypes and break down barriers to theological education.

See this link for the full profile of Wayne's work with seminaries by PBS.org in their Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.



Wayne is a prolific writer and frequent speaker on campuses, churches, and conferences.  The following links go back to 1986 and represent a small fraction of the speeches, essays, book chapters, and interviews he has given over the years.  

Wayne speaking in January, 2010 at a conference on Leadership & Social Justice Conference held at Saint Mary's College of California.