Minnesotans have rallied to help nonprofits during the pandemic, but across many organizations, most of those volunteers are white.

A statewide organization is trying to change that with new research calling attention to disparities in volunteerism.

"It's about time somebody looked at this system," said Karmit Bulman, who leads the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA), an advocacy organization. "We look at the school system, our criminal justice system and our health system and we all know the racial disparities … are huge. But nobody has looked at the system of volunteerism, which is really the backbone of so much of our positive community change. … It's time for change."

The state has grown increasingly diverse, with people of color making up about 21% of Minnesotans. About 50% of white people in the state say they volunteer and 34% of people of color say they do, according to 2017 census data. But Bulman said that's only part of the picture; many more people of color are likely volunteering through church or informal efforts — from coaching to helping at school. They're just not calling it volunteering.

"It's a way of life for a lot of communities of color and a lot of immigrant communities — that we help out wherever is needed," Bulman said.

But another problem is most nonprofits don't have equity strategies for volunteers, Bulman said, instead relying on a "white savior complex."

"If you go into any food shelf right now, you will see that 98% of the volunteers are white," said Bulman, who is white, adding that a mentorship program she's in has mostly white mentors helping children of color. "I'm pretty unhappy about the message that sends to the kids: that your saviors are going to be white."

Nonprofits have focused on diversifying staffing and boards. After George Floyd's death set off a global push for racial justice, the philanthropic sector boosted funding of racial justice work and sought its own reforms — from scrutinizing who makes grant decisions to which organizations get funded.

Now, MAVA is holding listening sessions with volunteers of color, paying attendees for their time with gift cards, thanks to a grant from the Minneapolis Foundation.

The effort began with a session in November. The group plans to issue recommendations in the spring for nonprofits on diversifying their volunteers.

Eliminating barriers

Donte Curtis, who participated in the November listening sessions, is a consultant who does equity training for nonprofits. He said communities of color may distrust established nonprofits, which could instead partner with trusted organizations to spread the word about opportunities.

"Seeing someone who looks like you has a huge impact. As a Black man, if I'm reading to another young Black boy, that can have a profound impact on him," he said, adding that diversifying volunteers will make nonprofits more effective and address shortages in help. "I really think organizations will be better."

He added that nonprofits need to eliminate barriers — from having volunteer hours only during the workday to requiring formal applications and training. Nonprofits could also offer transportation or child care and reframe volunteerism, touting not the organization but who is being helped, he said.

"There are a lot of hoops to jump through to become a volunteer," added Lisa Joyslin, the equity and inclusion manager with MAVA. "They were created by and for affluent white people."

At the start of the pandemic, some nonprofits saw a surge of Minnesotans who wanted to help. But more recently, as coronavirus cases and deaths rose, some nonprofits stopped accepting volunteers or encountered a sudden shortage of people willing to help due to concerns about the spread of the virus.

"They're going to have to start rebuilding," Bulman said. "Can they rebuild in a way that listens to the voices of people of color?"

Girl Scouts saw success

Two years ago, the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys started a program called Mentored Troops, which provides girls of color an opportunity to be part of a diverse troop led by a troop leader of color. The new program has helped draw nearly 60 women of color to be involved with the organization. The Girl Scouts also started cultural competency training for all of its staff.

"Our organization's audience has always been white girls and white women, and it's not to say we didn't want women of color and girls of color. It was that women of color and girls of color didn't see themselves as Girl Scouts," said Niila Hebert, senior manager of volunteer relations. "We had to go and remind people that Girl Scouts is for everyone."

Change doesn't happen quickly, though. Hebert, who is Black, is the only person of color on the board of directors at MAVA, though she said the organization has started to diversify its staff.

"Nonprofit organizations serve the community. … We have to also look like the communities that we are serving," she said. "This is ongoing work … it took 400 years to get here."

At Girls on the Run Twin Cities, the youth development program has held listening sessions with coaches of color, is reviewing its policies, partnering with other community organizations to draw more people of color and implementing implicit bias training. About 35% of program participants are girls of color, compared with 10% of coaches.

"We have so much work to do in this area," said Kathleen Cannon, program director. "We want our volunteers to mirror the community."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141