Cash-Strapped Cities Turn to Volunteers

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February 27, 2011; Source: Star Tribune | Minnesota might be short of cash to help fund local government operations but apparently the state is rich in volunteers willing to donate their time to keep public agencies functioning. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune notes, just as volunteers have for years "helped parks and rec departments, they now are venturing into new territory as cities and government agencies look for ways to soften budget cuts."

Kevin Frazell, member services director for the Minnesota League of Cities, calls this development "a trend." His group so far has found 55 examples of cities using volunteers to help patch over budget holes. Interest in using volunteer help at the municipal level doesn't seem to be abating. Mary Quirk, a manager Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration, reports that in a single week "I got five requests from government agencies asking about information on volunteers. Normally I get five a year."

For Wayzata Mayor Ken Willcox, the 120 volunteers who are lending a hand in this western suburb are helping the city continue to provide services that otherwise would be affected by recent layoffs. In addition to the assistance they provide, using volunteers also helps remind residents of "the stress that the economy was putting on the city budget," adds Wilcox.

Not surprisingly one of the reasons cities can turn to volunteers for help is that there are so many people still out of work. Sue Schroeder, an unemployed computer programmer, took an unpaid position helping Wayzata scan City Council minutes from 1940 to 1980 into a digital archive. "I've been out of work and watching my retirement go down," said Schroeder. "This allowed me to use my skills . . . and keep my sanity."—Bruce Trachtenberg

  • Valerie Jones

    As a Minnesotan who directs a nonprofit organization with the mission of promoting and supporting volunteerism I applaud local governments for recognizing the value of volunteer resources.

    However the danger is in thinking that volunteers are free- it takes a coordinated, well managed effort to fully engage volunteers in meaningful and important work.

    Recently, Community Thread, where I work, had its funding cut from the City of Stillwater, MN. Now, Stillwater has asked for our help in managing the expected 1,000+ volunteers who will help with sandbagging efforts as we prepare for spring flooding.

    I am happy that local govenrment is recognizing the talent and skill that lives in its citizenry, but am worried that small, local nonprofits will eat the bill for recruiting, managing, and training this resource on their behalf.

  • Bruce Trachtenberg

    Excellent cautions, Valerie. As the story indicates, there’s still some trial and error involved in using volunteers. One city, for instance, found out that using volunteers to answer phones at City Hall didn’t work because they didn’t have sufficient knowledge to respond to questions from callers.