When their numbers decrease, the nature of volunteerism changes

The pandemic has been a challenge for organizations that rely on volunteers.

Before COVID, Twin Cities-based Bridging had regular assistance from around 800 unpaid workers. Now the organizations that supply furniture to low-income families are down to about 600 people.

But Bridging’s experience shows that, for many organizations, volunteer status is more nuanced than the numbers might suggest.

When COVID arrived, Bridging had to close. But with around 100 families a week relying on it to furnish their homes, Bridging can’t stay closed. Staff quickly earned essential service designations, worked out safety strategies and reopened the Bloomington and Roseville warehouses, said Diana Dalsin. Bridging staff members who manage volunteers.

Then something interesting happened. Just as Bridging cannot live without its volunteers, it turns out that many volunteers cannot live without Bridging.

“I have volunteers who say, ‘Let me in!'” says Dalsin. “We’re lucky. We’re a place where people will call and say, ‘I have nowhere else to go, I’m not working. What can I do for you?'”

Marie Ford was one of those who wanted to return to Bridging. “You get to interact with people, which is why I was starving during the pandemic.”

Like many Bridges volunteers, 80-year-old Eden Prairie adds to the number of days she goes to Bridge each week.

Overall, the number of Americans serving through formal organizations is declining, according to a January report by the Census Bureau and Americorps. According to their data, about 23%, or about 61 million, will officially volunteer in 2021, about 7 percentage points less, or 17 million people, less than in 2019.

Minnesota numbers are also down, although the state ranks third in the country – following Utah and Wyoming – with 35.5% of residents volunteering.

The pandemic isn’t entirely to blame for this change—some organizations even saw a spike in volunteers when COVID arrived. Other data show volunteerism has declined since the early 2000s.

Possible explanations include a lack of free time, inflexible schedules, reduced membership in church and civic organizations, perhaps even political divisions.

“It feels like we’ve just become a more diabolical society, with people saying ‘It’s their own fault’ instead of ‘How can we lift them'” about those in need, said Kathryn Messerich of Mendota Heights, a retired district judge who volunteer with various organizations.

At the same time, the demand for volunteers increased with greater public demand, dwindling paid staff and changing lifestyles. To illustrate, Kathryn Tiede of the Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota suggests imagining a hypothetical retiree named Frank who has spent years driving for Meals on Wheels four days a week.

“When he decides he’s done, we can’t replace Frank,” said Tiede. “There’s no new retiree, someone in their mid-60s, who wants to replace Frank. We could find a replacement for Frank, but three people are needed. Now we need three volunteers to do what one person used to do. We need more volunteers than we’ve had before to do the same level of service that we’ve done before — plus we need to provide more service.”

For all readers participating in the Star Tribune Volunteer Challenge, the good news is that your efforts are much needed and greatly appreciated. Plus, you’re more likely to find opportunities that match your interests. That’s because volunteering evolves, evolving into a wider variety of roles and potentially richer experiences.

“I don’t know that I would say volunteerism is declining,” said Christine Page, community engagement manager at the Minneapolis-based Foundation for Essential Needs (FFEM), which provides free consultations to food shelves statewide. “I would just say that it looks different — very different. Especially since COVID.”

A woman seated at a desk wearing a sign answered the phone.

Longing to get out and interact with others during COVID, Eden Prairie’s Marie Ford is doubling down on her days volunteering at Bridging.

New ways to help

Philanthropic organizations are learning ways to accommodate changing lifestyles, resources and goals, said Tracy Nielsen, executive director of HandsOn Twin Cities, which connects volunteers with businesses and nonprofits.

“We started to think differently about what an engagement would actually be like,” says Nielsen. “Getting in and doing food packaging isn’t the only way people can engage with their communities.”

Remote volunteering jumped when the pandemic hit and now offers opportunities for people who stay home or are too busy to go somewhere in person. Some voluntary search engines, such as VolunteerMatch or the one offered by HandsOn Twin Cities, allow users to filter results for remote or virtual roles.

“There’s a group of people who get access to programming that maybe didn’t get it before the pandemic,” said Nielsen.

Demand is growing for pro-bono volunteers who can offer professional skills. HandsOn Twin Cities several years ago launched the Pro Bono Advisory Program, partnering with companies — including Target, General Mills, and Xcel Energy — to customize roles for their employees, “from quick consulting to all-day hackathons; from robust 12-week projects to deep -a deep employee loan program for a year.”

The mix of remote and pro-bono opportunities even attract talent from across the country, FFEN staff said, Page said. “We started getting people in Georgia, California, Oregon saying, ‘Hey, I can be a data analyst for you,’ or ‘I can help you with project management.'”

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

‘Just what we do’

The Census Report also tracks “informal volunteers” — that is, people who help others outside the established organization. About half of Americans, and 62% of Minnesotans put some effort into it: shoveling streets, watching children, caring for elderly friends, helping with church events, picking up trash.

Karmit Bulman, executive director of the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement, pointed to ordinary people “who showed up with brooms and mops and shovels and cleaned up” after the civil unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd.

“It doesn’t feel right to say suddenly we’re not so civic-minded, we don’t care about our community anymore,” Bulman said. Informal volunteers “make the world a better place in their own way”.

Helping others has long been commonplace in communities of color and low-income communities, which don’t always see it as “voluntary,” says Bulman. “People would say, ‘Oh, that’s what we do in the Black community, we help each other.'”

Some formal volunteer roles can be difficult for those who can’t get there on weekdays or don’t want to wait through a lengthy vetting and training process, says Bulman.

“We’ve made it harder for people of color to volunteer, that’s the point,” Bulman said. “Now is the perfect time to change some of our practices so people of color can be included.”

A woman at a desk with a computer on it smiles for the camera.

Zenobia Silas-Carson helps her neighbors by sharing information on how to adjust to losing her sight.

Zenobia Silas-Carson loves helping people, both formally and informally. Years ago, for example, while working at the Minneapolis women’s shelter, Silas-Carson would look out the window at the street.

“I’d see whores out there, icy cold outside, and I’d be allowed about an hour or so to go to this little restaurant and buy them a box or two of donuts and a hot chocolate or hot coffee.”

Now living in a Brooklyn Park nursing home and with his eyesight deteriorating, Silas-Carson collects information about coping with vision loss and shares it with other residents.

“There are days when I really [visually] challenged, and I know there are many people who are even more challenged and that causes them to isolate themselves,” she said. “They shut themselves in their apartment, saying ‘I don’t want to see anyone,’ and that’s very dangerous. place to be.”

Volunteer point of view

The St.-based Wilder Foundation Paul has added a comfortable and flexible position, says Paige Stein, Wilder’s volunteer services manager. That includes a substitute role — one who fills in when the regular volunteers are out — and one two- or three-hour shift packing school supplies for the kids.

Official Wilder is also trying to find ways to make volunteering more rewarding. Organizations organize voluntary advisory boards to gather input on how to improve the experience.

“At Wilder we work hard to examine the perspectives and wishes of volunteers,” he says.

Individual volunteers — such as participants in the Star Tribune Volunteer Challenge — can maximize rewards from their own perspective. If you want to volunteer, find assignments that match your interests and passions, suggests Randy Anderson of Golden Valley, a longtime volunteer in the fields of overdose prevention and criminal justice reform.

“Is there anything in your life that you have influenced or been influenced by, is there anything you’d like to see changed?” said Anderson. “Maybe it’s as easy as showing up at the Capitol for a rally. If you do something to help her, you’re part of the solution, no longer part of the problem.”

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