Minnesota volunteers say they get more than they give

When Nathan Sutter moved to St. Paul from Brooklyn with his wife this past May, he knows only a few residents of the Twin Cities and is looking to expand his social circle. And as a software engineer, Sutter really wanted to spend time outdoors and away from his computer.

Sutter, 36, heard that Dangerous Man Brewing Co. manages a community park for the Sheridan Neighborhood Organization in northeastern Minneapolis. She likes gardening, so she volunteered to help.

“It’s like working out, where there’s that initial urge of, ‘Yeah, I just did it and it feels good and my endorphins are pumping!'” she says. “But then there’s also the long-term benefits. I know some really great people.”

As he planted seeds, pulled weeds, watered plants, and organized garden tools, Sutter chatted with other volunteers, learning about the Twin Cities and Minnesota culture. Of course, she is happy to know that the product is going to a local family in need, but that is not the main reason she volunteers. He did it for experience.

“No matter how altruistic people’s behavior is, there’s always an underlying element of, ‘What do I get out of this?'” he says.

As Sutter and many others have proven, people who volunteer reap benefits potentially beyond what they contribute to their communities.

That’s why for this year’s annual Reader Challenge series, the Star Tribune invites you to join the 35.5% of Minnesotans (over 1.5 million) who volunteer.

That volunteer participation rate puts Minnesota third among the states, behind Utah and Wyoming, and more than 12 percentage points above the US average, according to the recent biennial US Census report based on 2021 statistics. It is higher than the ranking. our fifth in 2019, although some research has placed us in second. Either way, maybe we can make the first one in 2023.

‘My life has been enriched’

Volunteer not just to help others – though that’s definitely one of a kind reasons – but to help yourself.

“My life is more interesting now,” said a volunteer in a survey conducted by the Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota late last year. Survey respondents echoed many variations of that statement.

“My life has been enriched.”

“Makes me feel as though I still have something to contribute.”

“I’ve met amazing people.”

“I have found my goal!”

Overall, more than 90% of the 113 survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their volunteer experience had positively changed their lives.

68-year-old Irene Ford sits in a chair and holds a baby as part of her grandparents' volunteer work at the Northside Child Development Center.

Irene Ford, 68, from Minneapolis, spends time with babies as one of the foster grandparent volunteers at the Northside Child Development Center.

Where to start?

What should you do voluntarily? That’s probably best answered with another question: What do you enjoy doing? Our quiz can help get you started looking for a volunteer opportunity that’s right for you.

Many volunteer roles involve activities you already enjoy, such as Sutter’s gardening, geared toward helping people, animals, communities, the planet.

“Think first about your own interests, passions, and skills, and then realize that there are volunteer opportunities for almost anything you are interested in,” says Karmit Bulman, executive director of the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement. “The first step is self-examination.”

Do you enjoy running, reading, baking, biking, bowling, sailing, sewing, driving, playing baseball, translating languages, taking photos, making videos, styling hair, playing musical instruments, massaging, assembling furniture, preparing taxes, hosting party dinners? or take care of the baby? There is a volunteer role that corresponds to each of these activities.

Our quizzes can help you narrow it down from there, and search engines can help you find specific opportunities. As of this writing, VolunteerMatch.org lists 228 formal volunteering opportunities, in and around Minneapolis. Searchable volunteer roles are also available at HandsOn Twin Cities, Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, and Greater Twin Cities United Way.

You might find some word of mouth, talking to friends who like their own volunteer work. Or check out the Volunteer Challenge Facebook page we launched as a place to share ideas, explore opportunities, and see how the challenge might be for others. The Star Tribune also publishes odds lists every Saturday.

Join the Volunteer Challenge on Facebook

Throughout March, The Star Tribune will explore the various elements of volunteerism, from how finding opportunities that work for you to how helping others can backfire and make your life better. And every Saturday, we’ll throw in a challenge for an action you can take. Join this group to share details of your trip and help motivate each other. Join here

If you are interested in a particular organization, you can contact them directly (most of them have websites listing volunteer positions). Beyond the familiar homeless shelters, food racks, humane societies and nursing homes, organizations that rely on volunteers include art galleries, Three Rivers park, Lake Harriet trolleybus, and the Cafesjian Carousel in Como Park. You can mentor business owners, test water quality, lead smoking cessation groups, or chat on the phone with socially isolated seniors. You can do anything from adopting a fire hydrant to becoming a volunteer firefighter.

And, of course, you can also volunteer by supporting causes that are important to you. VolunteerMatch sorts opportunities into categories ranging from advocacy and human rights to literacy and crisis support. Opportunities exist at all times and in all seasons, solo or with a group, in the outside world or at home.

Pro bono roles are also in demand, if you have professional skills you’d like to channel towards a cause.

“Not-for-profits are thinking about how to use pro-bono volunteers in financial planning, operations planning, marketing, finance” and other areas, says Tracy Nielsen, executive director of HandsOn Twin Cities. “We call it volunteerism 2.0.”

Last fall, Anand Murali spent a day using his professional marketing skills to help find ways Valley of Peace Donkey Rescue could attract potential business donors.

“We brainstormed a short list,” says Murali, 37, of Woodbury. “We talk about four things that can make an impact and share them back [Peaceful Valley] in the form of a report.”

But perhaps the last thing you want to be doing when you leave the office or retire is your regular job. That’s fine, too, says Nielsen. “Making sandwiches is good, packing food is good, everything is needed.”

Sometimes the fun of volunteering comes from letting your mind wander while you’re working on the assignment, says high school student Yasmine Tesema of Robbinsdale.

A young woman was standing at a table in the storage room.  He pointed the spray bottle at the coat that was placed on the table next to a pile of other clothes.

Yasmine Tesema, 17, of Robbinsdale sorting items at thrift store Golden Valley Shop for Change.

Tesema, 17, plans to study neuroscience and technology at the University of Minnesota, one day working to develop technology to treat brain disorders. But for now, she’s enjoying her weekly shift sorting items for Shop for Change, a thrift store operated by PRISM (People Responding to Ministry of Social Affairs) in Golden Valley.

“I like the place,” he said. “Sometimes when I’m sorting out clothes, I try to come up with a back story of how this item was used, what this item means to other people. It’s peaceful. I don’t know how to describe it, but it makes me happy.”

Finally, consider the possibility that you are already volunteering and didn’t even know it. Not because you’re sleepwalking, but because you regularly shovel your old neighbor’s sidewalk, or grill bars for church meetings, or accompanying school field trips, or watch friends’ kids while they’re at work. The volunteer community is starting to recognize this as “informal volunteering” and about 62% of Minnesota residents do so in some form, according to AmeriCorps.

However you decide to approach our volunteer challenges, you will know that your work is valued and important.

“We always need volunteers. Period. End of story,” said Kathryn Tiede, vice president of philanthropy at the Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. “There’s nowhere we can’t take more.”

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