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In a state known for having one of the most active volunteer bases in the country, the Good Deeds Society stands out. Not so much for what it does -- which is exactly what its name implies -- but for what it doesn't do: Anything else.
"We show up, we volunteer and we go home," said organizer Andy Fischer.
The Twin Cities group is part of a groundswell in what often is referred to as "commitment-free volunteering." Unlike church-based volunteer programs and traditional service organizations such as the Lions Club and Kiwanis, these groups offer the opportunity to serve without incorporating any other demands on members' time. In fact, other than showing up when you say you're going to show up, there are no demands whatsoever.
"You don't have to promise to help a certain number of times a week," Fischer said. "You want to make it once this week and not make it again for three months? That's OK."
Many mainstream churches are facing membership declines -- a recent Pew Research Center poll found that a record-high 20 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated -- and some established service organizations are reporting declines as steep as 50 percent from the 1980s.
The Good Deeds Society has grown to nearly 800 members since it was launched six years ago.
In addition, there are two nationally based singles-oriented volunteer groups with local chapters, Single Volunteers and One Brick. Each caters to people under 30, typically combining a volunteer event with a social gathering.
Tonia Bock, a University of St. Thomas psychology professor who used to work in the nonprofit sector, said the growth of these groups is spurred by society's drift toward overscheduling.
"People are so very busy these days that they don't want to commit to an organization that requires them to attend 'X' number of meetings," she said. "They still want to give and contribute, but they want to do so comfortably within their busy lives."
The groups also attract people who don't want to get wrapped up in ideology, she said.
"They are a really good fit for people who have a wide range of beliefs, people for whom it's a challenge to find an organization in which they agree with all of its values and ideologies," she said.
The groups' ability to focus entirely on helping the needy is a powerful lure.
"Doing this makes you feel thankful for what you have instead of thinking about what you don't have," said Annette Gaudreau of Mound, who spent a recent Sunday working at two Good Deeds Society events.
Gaudreau started with the morning meal service at the House of Charity in downtown Minneapolis, then moved a few blocks north to help with the lunch rush at the People Serving People homeless shelter.
While Saturday has been designated the National Day of Service, the members of the society aren't in it for the acclaim. But there is a payoff involved.
"Volunteering is a very selfish thing to do," she said. "I get more out of this than the people we're serving. I get a lot of happy smiles and a lot of 'thank yous.' It feels really good to give something back" to society.
The term "commitment-free" is something of an oxymoron for Daniel Brownson of Hopkins. He jumps at the chance to commit himself to any of the group's projects.
"I'd do an event every day if they had them," he said as he handed out cartons of milk to youngsters at People Serving People. "It's just my personality. I like giving more than receiving."
All of Good Deeds Society's growth has come via word of mouth. The group does no advertising or promotion; the optional $2-a-year dues won't support it. Events are posted on its Meetup website, where members click on the ones that interest them and add their names to the list of people offering to help.
It was the Meetup website that drew Gaudreau to the organization two years ago. She did a simple Google search for volunteering and found the Good Deeds Society. She still occasionally volunteers on her own, but she prefers the camaraderie of the society.
"It's nice to be with a group of like-minded people," she said. "You get a chance to catch up on what's happening with people, and you don't have to be here with strangers."
Typical events include serving meals to the homeless, packing food for Save My Starving Children and sorting medical supplies to be sent to developing countries. Members also can log on to the web page to suggest projects.
"There's always stuff to do," Fischer said. "There are always places to go."
Some make it a family affair. Naomi Bothe of Rosemount, a regular at the People Serving People lunches, often brings her 9-year-old son. "My whole family is into volunteering, and I think it's important to show him" the value of helping others, she said.
Helping people doesn't have to be hard work, said Trina Wheeler of St. Paul, who was working at the lunch.
"It doesn't take a lot of energy to smile or say 'hi' to someone," she said. "When I leave, I always feel better than when I got here."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392
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