Minnesota ranked third among the states in the number of volunteers in 2021, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to research conducted by AmeriCorps and the U.S. Census Bureau.
But fewer Minnesotans donated their time in 2021 than before the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, reflecting a declining national trend, the new report shows.
"I think there's a real effort now to let volunteers know that it's safe to come back and volunteer," said Karmit Bulman, executive director of the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement. "We want to continue to be the kind of state where we are No. 1 in philanthropy and No. 1 in volunteerism."
Regarding the state's No. 3 status, Bulman said: "Minnesota has always been known for being a community where people help people, so it's no surprise to me at all."
The state ranked behind only Wyoming and Utah in the most recent national rankings, and moved up two places from No. 5 in 2019. That was the same year the Twin Cities ranked No. 1 in AmeriCorps volunteers among metro areas nationwide.
According to the report, more than a third of Minnesota residents — more than 1.5 million — volunteered in 2021, a higher rate than Americans overall but lower than the 40% who volunteered in 2019.
However, donations by Minnesotans have surged during the pandemic, according to the report. Nearly two-thirds of state residents donated at least $25 to a charity in 2021. And those Minnesotans who volunteered in 2021 contributed $3.5 billion in economic value.
The report also tracked informal volunteers — people who help neighbors outside of an organization — which stayed the same nationally since 2019. Nearly two-thirds of Minnesotans said they informally help out in the community, earning the state a sixth-place ranking for informal volunteers.
"Informal volunteerism is the most prevalent way that people volunteer, and they don't necessarily even call it volunteerism," Bulman said. "Most people just want to do good in their communities and don't necessarily go to an organization to do it."
The number of volunteers nationwide dipped by 7% from 2019 to 2021, the largest decline in nearly two decades of research by the two federal agencies, which conduct the research every two years.
Many Minnesota nonprofits have weathered volunteer shortages throughout the pandemic, canceling large group volunteer events and shifting some events to projects that could be safely done at home.
At Keystone Community Services in St. Paul, the number of volunteers dropped by nearly 50% from 2019 to 2022. The decline left the group scrambling to deliver meals and staff food shelves, which served double the number of people as they did in 2021.
"People have really pulled back ... and I don't know that we really know why," said Mary McKeown, CEO of Keystone. "[The pandemic] really shifted people's behavior, and we don't know if it's going to shift back ... or if this is really the new normal."
Like other nonprofits, Keystone is confronting the volunteer shortage at the same time it's facing staffing turnover amid what's been called the Great Resignation. McKeown said they're weighing whether to scale back program hours.
In the meantime, they're trying to get out the word on social media and college campuses about the need for volunteers.
"We're all struggling," she said. "We just don't have the people power to do the work."
In Brooklyn Park, CEAP (Community Emergency Assistance Programs) has fewer volunteers and logs about half the number of volunteer hours it did before the pandemic. Retirees, who make up a large portion of volunteers, haven't returned at the same levels. Other volunteers aren't able to help as much because of employment or child-care issues.
In Bloomington, Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People (VEAP) also lost about half its volunteer ranks in the pandemic and has been building back slowly, restarting large group events and drawing new volunteers.
"The pandemic really highlighted the need in our community, and Minnesotans ... really want to continue to be part of the solution," said Ree Ford, VEAP's volunteer engagement coordinator.
The Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement is putting together a guidebook this year for those who want to give back but aren't sure how or where to start. HandsOn Twin Cities also lists local opportunities at handsontwincities.org.