Minnesota's volunteers are a generous bunch, but there are fewer of them

A volunteer checks the back room to help a guest.
Volunteer Alice Vega checks out the supplies in the back room to help a guest at Joseph's Coat on Nov. 12 in St. Paul, Minn.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

While Minnesotans are more generous than residents of most other states in volunteering their free time, the proportion of people volunteering in the state has steadily declined in recent years.

Volunteer rates in the Twin Cities and Minnesota as a whole are among the highest in the country, according to the annual survey by the Corporation for National and Community Service. About 35 percent of Minnesotans say they formally volunteered last year.

State residents have traditionally led the country in their willingness to volunteer, partly due to the state's culture and partly because so many nonprofits make their home here, said Mary Quirk, executive director of the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration.

"They're helping kids learn to read, they're working on cleaning up the environment, they're working on addressing homelessness, hunger, all of those key issues," Quirk said. "A big portion of the quality of life we like to see in Minnesota, it's being accomplished through volunteers."

But rates of volunteerism have declined slightly nationwide and more dramatically in Minnesota. Over the last ten years, the number of Minnesotans who say they volunteer has dropped by about 6 percent — the drop nationwide has been about 3 percent.

"Even though it's really exciting to see Minnesota as the top in the nation, we have to look at the fact that volunteerism has slowly been dropping off a bit in this state," Quirk said. "That's something that's really a call to action to us here in Minnesota to see what we can do to bring that back up."

Quirk said the lack of support from the state could be one reason why volunteering has declined so rapidly in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Office for Citizenship and Volunteer Services, located in the governor's office, was shuttered by former Gov. Jesse Ventura in 2002 for budget reasons. For 27 years before it closed, the state agency promoted volunteerism across the state by connecting volunteer organizations with companies, publishing reports and promoting volunteer opportunities.

A state House resolution passed a month after Ventura closed the office lauded the organization for its work, saying "its strong, positive impact on volunteering in Minnesota will live on for years." Closing the office saved the state $339,000 in each fiscal year.

After reaching a peak participation rate of 41 percent two years later in 2004, the state's volunteer rate has declined every year but one.

"There's also been less funding going to volunteer centers and connector organizations, so a lot of that structure that's in Minnesota to support volunteerism," Quirk said. "If you invest less, it's harder for volunteers to connect to those opportunities."

Nonprofits that rely on volunteers say they must work hard to keep them engaged, said Adam Faitek of Prepare and Prosper, which prepares tax returns and hold financial literacy classes for low and moderate income individuals.

"Our volunteer staff, like myself and a couple other volunteer staff, we spend a lot of time out and getting to know volunteers and trying to build the sense of community at our tax clinics where they volunteer," Faitek said "For volunteers to have a good experience, there has to be staff in place or leader volunteers to help make that a good an experience — volunteerism doesn't just happen."

Cutting back on costs associated with volunteers during recessions can be tempting to nonprofits.

"The challenge is that if you're an organization and you're not investing in the infrastructure for volunteers, which is really having the staff and training necessary, you're not going to be able to maintain your program," Faitek said. "You're not going to be able to grow your program."

Even though they've fallen, average levels of volunteerism in Minnesota over the last few years have been higher than any states except Utah and Idaho.

The Corporation for National and Community Service, which compiles the annual survey along with the U.S. Census, has explored some factors associated with high rates of volunteerism that could explain why Minnesotans are more likely than many other volunteer.

"In rural areas, [one factor is] lower commute times, another one is higher levels of homeownership," said CEO Wendy Spencer. "Another for the metropolitan areas is where there is a higher density of nonprofits and also higher education levels, and you've got a higher level of universities."

Among the most likely to volunteer in their communities, according to the survey, are single mothers.

"They're very concerned about the quality of the community they're raising their children in, they're very connected to a lot of organizations through their children," Spencer said. "It may happen naturally, but it surely shows that they care."

In Minnesota, volunteering has dropped among millennials and teens, although college students are volunteering at higher rates.

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