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Study finds volunteerism at a crossroads

Mary Quirk, volunteer resources leadership project manager for the Minnesota Association of Volunteer Administration, speaks to the Southwest/West Central Volunteer Connections group in Willmar Monday about the findings from a new survey on Minnesota volunteerism. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR -- As Minnesota's economy sank deeper into recession this year, Mary Quirk and her colleagues at the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration began hearing from around the state about the stresses facing organizations that rely on volunteers.

Many were cutting their budgets and being forced to depend even more on volunteers. For some, there was a shortage of volunteers. For others, the volunteers were there but not the resources to train and supervise them.

Sensing a major shift in volunteerism, the association decided to conduct a survey this past summer to gain a better picture of what was happening.

"We wanted to get some hard data to support the stories," said Quirk, the volunteer resources leadership project manager for the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration. "We realized whatever was going to happen, it was going to mean some big changes for the field of volunteer administration."

The result is a brand-new study, "A Time to Be Bold: Engaging Volunteers in a Shifting Environment."

It's believed to be the first time anyone has attempted to comprehensively measure the current volunteer climate.

Quirk shared the findings, and their implications, in Willmar on Monday during a meeting of the Southwest/West Central Volunteer Connections group. Similar meetings are planned in the rest of the state to gather feedback and ideas that will subsequently be posted on the association's Web site at

"If you feel your organization is going through some tough times, you can be sure you're not alone," Quirk told the 20 or so people who attended.

Among the issues uncovered by the survey: More than 85 percent of the respondents reported their organization is under financial stress. Close to 60 percent said they were more reliant on volunteers than they were a year ago, but only 12 percent had an increased budget to support volunteer programs.

The situation varies widely from one organization to the next, Quirk said. Some organizations are struggling to find enough volunteers. Others have seen a substantial increase in the number of people wanting to volunteer and in some cases have had to put them on a waiting list or turn them away.

Christine Hilbert, who coordinates the Willmar School District's Child Guide program, said it's sometimes an issue for her to find "the right position for the volunteer."

"In some areas we have enough and in other areas we don't have enough. We can't always place people right away," she said.

There also has been a change among the volunteers themselves. Many of them are more highly skilled, and more volunteers are coming from the ranks of the jobless.

All of this means organizations must be nimble and innovative, Quirk said.

For instance, some have started using Facebook to connect online with their volunteers and potential volunteers. Others have streamlined how they screen, place and train volunteers, and are looking for how to involve volunteers in new ways.

"There are no rulebooks right now," Quirk said. "If we're being smart in what we're doing, the organizations are going to come out differently at the end of the recession."

Sheri Nordmeyer, program director for the Willmar Community Senior Network Living at Home Block Nurse Program, said she planned to take the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration report back to her office and study it more closely.

She called it "a very powerful tool in training volunteer management."

"It's very important to be proactive about our programs and have a creative approach, because it's not easy for nonprofits to survive," she said. "It is possible but it takes creativity."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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