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Nonprofits see uptick in volunteers during down economy

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Andrea Roeger
Andrea Roeger and her husband moved to Minneapolis in August when he got a job here. While she looks for a job she also volunteers her time updating a section of the Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity Web site.
MPR Photo/Rupa Shenoy

Andrea Roeger has been looking for a job for five months. 

She and her husband moved to Minneapolis in August when he got a job here. Roeger, 24, has a degree in political science and German. She'd like to find a job with a nonprofit organization.

While she looks for one, she works as a volunteer for Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, among a growing number of unemployed who are using their free time to help others.  For organizations like Habitat, the growing pool of job seekers and laid-off workers who want to volunteer is an unexpected benefit of the recession.

"As I was looking for jobs I was looking at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits site and they have all kinds of volunteer jobs," Roeger said. "I thought well, I should just get involved and start that way."

Now, Roeger volunteers hours each week with Habitat for Humanity and updates a section of their Web site. 

"Because I'm job searching I thought it would be good to just have experience," she said. "I think it also shows that I'm doing something during that time; I'm not just sitting at home doing nothing."

The number of people attending local Habitat for Humanity orientations has doubled, from about 550 last year to nearly 1,000 this year, said Rolenc, the organization's communications program manager.

"I thought well, I should just get involved and start that way."

"There's definitely an increase in displaced laid off workers who just want to do something meaningful with their time," Rolenc said. "Some might do it to keep their skills fresh. Some might do it to try something new. Or some just might want to get involved because they haven't had the opportunity volunteer before."

A Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration survey shows more than 50 percent of organizations reported an increase in people donating their time.

More than 75 percent of the organizations said their increase in volunteers was primarily made up of unemployed people. 

But what seems like a blessing comes with a cost. The survey shows that, for the most part, funding for organizations didn't increase along with the number of volunteers. Only 12 percent had more money for their volunteer program.

Rolenc says that leaves organizations like hers struggling to decide how to use their free workforce.

"The increased interest in volunteerism has presented some real challenges and great opportunities for habitat," she said. "It's really forced us to reexamine how we engage volunteers and how we can provide meaningful experiences -- and it really help us to grow our capacity as an organization."

Meanwhile, Habitat for Humanity is continuing to focus on its core mission. A new house in Minneapolis closes out a worldwide project for the organization, which worked with Thrivent Financial for Lutherans to build 2,000.

Abraham Shokiyo is about to move his family into one of those homes, in St Paul. 

Shokiyo, an Ethiopian immigrant, is studying to be a nurse. He makes minimum wage as a waiter. He and his wife have five children. 

"Having a home is just like a kind of stability, a kind of investment, a kind of to know who you are," Shokiyo said. "It's really a really good opportunity for us."

And for the children. Shokiyo says the kids are already divvying up space in their new bedrooms. 

Thrivent Financial for Lutherans plans to announce another $15 million partnership with Habitat for Humanity Friday. The money will go toward 181 homes around the world.