Let Go and Let the Volunteers!

July 5, 2012

It’s July and I find myself between two annual events – a plant sale and a garden tour.  Two annual events that didn’t exist when I started working here. Two annual events that have raised more money for our program than any other fund-raising activities prior.  Two annual events started by volunteers!

I’ll be honest, I don’t like special events – as they say, “been there, done that!”  However, special events are usually key activities in the volunteer program leader’s job description.  When I started with our program in 2005, our only fund-raising was through calendar and book sales (mostly to our members,) and honorariums requested for master gardener volunteers to be present at local garden centers or for teaching community education classes.   Funds are raised to support our activities in the community (computers, LCD projectors, tools, seeds, etc.) and volunteer recognition.  When a huge garden center chain went out of business, and as some of the smaller centers disappeared, we suddenly found ourselves with a cash flow problem.

About this time, a group of volunteers attended a Master Gardener conference in Milwaukee.  This group came back to report that Milwaukee was raising funds through a plant sale.  Not only were they bringing in $50,000 annually, but Milwaukee was willing to share their model with us!  “Oh, great!” was my response, while actually thinking “oh-oh, here we go.”  Then, another group thought it would be wonderful to expand our “volunteer only” tour of master gardener gardens, and start to charge the public to join us – they also thought it would be great if we held demonstrations in the garden, so it would be a “learning garden tour!”  “Super.” I said, all the while wondering “will I ever get to spend time with my family again?”  As with many volunteer programs, I’m a single program coordinator working with a large group.  Frankly, I just didn’t see how I could manage two special events in addition to everything else going on with our program.  But, I did sense that there was a lot of energy around these two events.  Also, that if these events were to be successful, it would need volunteer support and not mine.  So, I let go and let the volunteers! And because of that, our bank account has slowly increased over the past 5 years.

What’s at work here was not rocket science, but basic project management principles:

Define the outcome:  Pretty simple – we were going to hold two special events to raise funds for our community programs.

Set timelines and deadlines:  This was also pretty simple, especially with an event.  It was easy set dates, and then work back from the event date to establish timelines and deadlines.

Work on the terms of the volunteer’s, not your own:  As mentioned earlier, there was only so much I could do to support this effort.  I let volunteers know I was available, but they determined what needed to be done, when it needed to be done, who was going to do it, etc.  I was only included when necessary – like getting contracts signed and covering expenses.

Budget:  Let folks know how much you’re willing to invest, and what will make the project.  Volunteers determined that $4,000 would be a good amount for them to work with.  That became the budget.  I did share with folks that all I wanted to do was to break even.  They were sure we’d bring in $50,000.  We actually netted $8,000 that first year, so truly a good investment.  I did share with our volunteers that if we just broke even, or lost money, we would really need to evaluate whether we’d continue with the events.

Delegate as much as possible; be flexible:  Both projects were under total volunteer control.  All I was asked to do was to purchase cash boxes and show up with cash the day of the event (which I conveniently forgot for our first plant sale!)

Celebrate the successes, and share with others!  We celebrate each committee at our annual recognition banquet, but the real celebration occurs after each event when volunteers hold their own recaps and celebrations.

Our finances would be much leaner had I said “no” when asked about these events.  I also think that the events wouldn’t be as successful if I was the one who said “hey, let’s have a plant sale!”  So, great things can be accomplished by just letting go!  Today’s volunteers seek higher-level roles and want to use their skills – this can be accomplished by just letting go.  Everyone can win when you let go and let the volunteers!


Terry Straub, Program Coordinator

University of Minnesota Extension
Master Gardener Program — Hennepin County


Volunteering in Minnesota

September 6, 2011

Recently, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) released their report on volunteerism in the United States.

Yet again, Minnesota ranked 3rd in the nation for rate of volunteerism, while for the fifth year running, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro Area ranked number one among large cities. In 2010, 1.6 million Minnesotans volunteered over 189 million hours of service. With these great, and increasingly impressive statistics, that reflect Minnesotans willingness to volunteer there time, the question arises, why Minnesota?

Are Minnesotans just more altruistic? Is the “Minnesota Nice” stereotype true? Or is there something else affecting our outstanding volunteer rates? Mary Quirk, Interim Executive Director of MAVA, told MinnPost that “we have a good structure for volunteerism here,” noting Minnesotans remarkably high educational attainment and relatively low commute times(click here to read the article!).

CNCS offers an in-depth picture of why the volunteerism rate in Minnesota is so high. They highlight seven characteristics of Minnesota that encourage volunteerism:

  1. Where foreclosures are higher, rates of volunteerism tend to be lower.

Minnesota’s most recent foreclosure rate was 1 out of every 960 homes that was foreclosed on. The national average is currently 1/611. (realtytrac.com)

  1. Volunteerism rates are likely to be higher in communities where there are more nonprofits per capita.

The national average is 4.55 nonprofits per 1,000 residents in a community.Minnesota averages 5.72 nonprofits per 1,000 residents. As Mary mentioned Minnesota’s structure for volunteerism is well established and there are many opportunities and places to volunteer.  (volunteeringinamerica.gov)

  1. As rates of home ownership increase, rates of volunteerism tend to increase. Conversely, a high percentage multiunit housing tends to correspond with a lower volunteer rate.

With this measure CNCS attempts to measure an individual’s “commitment and attachment to their community.” The national home ownership rate for 2010 was 68.9 percent, while the state rate for Minnesotawas much higher at 74.9 percent. Along the same lines, the percentage of multiunit housing nationally was 32.7 percent in 2010, while in Minnesota it was only 21.2 percent. (quickfacts.census.gov and volunteeringinamerica.gov)

  1. As rates of higher education rise, the rates of volunteerism also tend to rise.

Nationally, 85.3 percent have received their high school diploma or GED equivalent, while 27.9 percent have received a bachelor’s degree or higher. In Minnesota, however, 91.1 percent have received their high school diploma or GED equivalent, while 31.2 percent have received their bachelor’s degree or higher. (ers.usda.gov/statefacts/mn.htm and volunteeringinamerica.gov)

  1. High poverty rates are associated with lower rates of volunteerism.

The national poverty rate in 2010 was 14.3 percent, while Minnesota’s poverty rate was lower, around 10.9 percent (2009 data). However, it is not known whether high rates of volunteerism lead to lower rates of poverty, or if higher rates of poverty lead to lower rates of volunteerism. (ers.usda.gov/satefacts/mn.htm and volunteeringinamerica.gov)

  1. High rates of unemployment tend to correspond with lower rates of volunteerism.

The national unemployment rate was 8.8 percent in 2010, while Minnesota’s unemployment rates the same year hovered between 6.9 and 7.8 percent. If you are looking to engage job seekers as volunteers in your organization check out MAVA’s toolkit.

All of this information can be found at volunteeringinamerica.gov, which includes data from all 50 states, information about informal volunteering, and statistics about national service programs.

With a variety of factors working in its favor, Minnesota maintains high rates of volunteerism in all age groups, genders, and ethnicities. So, what do you think? Why do so many Minnesotans volunteer? What makes Minnesota such a great place to donate your time and talents?

Kat Southard

Member Outreach Coordinator