Volunteering's new look

As old avenues close, fresh ones open

An illustration of a person surrounded by a collage of people engaged in various volunteer activities.

The pandemic has been challenging for organizations that depend on volunteers.

Before COVID, Twin Cities-based Bridging had regular help from about 800 unpaid workers. Now the organization, which supplies furniture to low-income families, is down to about 600.

But Bridging's experience demonstrates that, for many organizations, the state of volunteering is more nuanced than the numbers might suggest.

When COVID arrived, Bridging had to shut down. But with about 100 families a week relying on it to furnish their homes, Bridging couldn't stay closed. Staff quickly obtained designation as an essential service, devised safety strategies and reopened its Bloomington and Roseville warehouses, said Diana Dalsin. a Bridging staff member who manages volunteers.

Then something interesting happened. Just as Bridging couldn't get along without its volunteers, it turned out many volunteers couldn't get along without Bridging.

"I had volunteers saying, 'Let me in!'" Dalsin said. "We were lucky. We were the place people would call up and say, 'I've got nowhere else to go, I'm not working. What can I do for you?'"

Marie Ford was one of those eager to return to Bridging. "You get to interact with people, which I starved for during the pandemic."

Like many Bridging volunteers, the Eden Prairie 80-year-old increased the number of days she goes into Bridging every week.

Overall, the number of Americans who serve 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, volunteered formally in 2021, about 7 percentage points lower, or 17 million people, fewer than in 2019.

Minnesota's numbers are down, too, 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 shift — some organizations even saw a surge of volunteering when COVID arrived. Other data suggest volunteerism has been decreasing since the early 2000s.

Possible explanations include shortages of free time, inflexible schedules, dwindling membership in churches and civic organizations, maybe even political divisiveness.

"It feels like we have just become sort of a meaner society, with people saying 'It's their own fault' instead of 'How can we lift them up'" about those in need, said Kathryn Messerich of Mendota Heights, a retired district judge who volunteers with multiple organizations.

At the same time, demand for volunteers is rising with greater public need, shrinking paid staffs and changing lifestyles. To illustrate, Kathryn Tiede of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota suggested 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 cannot replace Frank," Tiede said. "There is no new retiree, somebody in their mid-60s, who wants to replace Frank. We can put together a replacement for Frank, but it takes three people. Now we need three volunteers to do what one person used to do. We need more volunteers than we've ever had before to do the same level of service we've done before — plus we need to provide more service."

For all you readers participating in the Star Tribune Volunteer Challenge, the good news is that your efforts are much needed and greatly appreciated. Also, you're more likely than ever to find opportunities that fit your interests. That's because volunteering is evolving, blossoming 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 consulting to food shelves throughout the state. "I would just say that it looks different — very different. Particularly since COVID."

A woman sitting at a desk and wearing a nametag answers a phone.

Longing to get out and interact with others during COVID, Marie Ford of Eden Prairie doubled the days she volunteers at Bridging.

New ways to help

Philanthropic organizations are studying 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're starting to think differently about what engagement really looks like," Nielsen said. "Going in and doing food packing is not the only way people can engage with their community."

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

"There's a whole group of people who got access to programming who maybe weren't getting that prior to the pandemic," Nielsen said.

Demand is growing for pro-bono volunteers who can offer professional skills. HandsOn Twin Cities a few years ago launched a Pro Bono Advisory Program, partnering with corporations — including Target, General Mills and Xcel Energy — to tailor roles for their employees, "from quick consultations to daylong hackathons; from robust 12-week projects to in-depth yearlong loaned-employee programs."

Combined remote and pro-bono opportunities even attract talent from around the country, the FFEN staff discovered, 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

During the month of March, The Star Tribune will be exploring the various elements of volunteering, from how to find an opportunity that fits you to how helping others can have a boomerang effect and make your life better. And each Saturday, we'll lay down a challenge for an action you can take. Join this group to share details of your journey and help keep each other motivated. Join here

'Just what we do'

The Census report also tracked "informal volunteering" — that is, people who help others outside of established organizations. About half of Americans, and 62% of Minnesotans make such efforts: shoveling walks, watching children, caring for an elderly friend, helping at church events, picking up litter.

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 George Floyd's murder.

"It doesn't feel right to say suddenly we're no longer civic-minded, we no longer care about our communities," Bulman said. Informal volunteers "are making the world a better place on their own terms."

Helping others has long been commonplace in communities of color and lower-income people, who don't necessarily think of it as "volunteering" per se, Bulman said. "People will say, 'Oh, that's just what we do in the Black community, we help each other out.'"

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, Bulman said.

"We have made it very hard for people of color to volunteer, that's the bottom line," Bulman said. "Now is an excellent 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 toward the camera.

Zenobia Silas-Carson helps her neighbors by sharing information on adjusting to vision loss.

Zenobia Silas-Carson likes helping people, whether formally or informally. Years ago, for example, while working at a Minneapolis women's shelter, Silas-Carson would look out a window to the street.

"I'd see the prostitutes out there, in the icy cold outside, and I'd be excused for about an hour to go down to this little restaurant and get them a box or two of doughnuts and hot chocolate or hot coffee."

Now, living in a Brooklyn Park senior home and with her eyesight deteriorating, Silas-Carson collects information about adjusting to vision loss and shares it with other residents.

"There are days that I'm very [visually] challenged, and I know there are many people who are even more challenged and it causes them to isolate," she said. "They hole up in their apartment, saying 'I don't want to see anybody,' and that's a very dangerous place to be."

Volunteer viewpoints

St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation has added convenient and flexible positions, said Paige Stein, Wilder's volunteer services manager. They include substitute roles — people who fill in when a regular volunteer is out — and one-time shifts of two or three hours packing school supplies for kids.

Wilder officials are also trying to find ways to make the tasks of volunteering even more rewarding. The organization organized a volunteer advisory council to gather input on how to improve experiences.

"At Wilder we're working hard to examine volunteer viewpoints and desires," she said.

Individual volunteers — such as participants in the Star Tribune Volunteer Challenge — can maximize reward from their own perspective. If you'd like to volunteer, find tasks that match your interests and passions, suggested Randy Anderson of Golden Valley, a longtime volunteer in the areas of overdose prevention and criminal justice reform.

"Is there something in your life that you've been affected by or impacted by, is there something you want to see changed?" Anderson said. "It may be something as easy as showing up at the Capitol for a rally. If you're doing something to help it, you're part of the solution, no longer part of the problem."