Volunteers get more than they give

Take our challenge to help make a difference

An illustration of a person surrounded by a collage of people engaged in various volunteer activities.

When Nathan Sutter moved to St. Paul from Brooklyn with his wife last May, he knew only a few Twin Cities residents and wanted to broaden his social circle. And as a software engineer, Sutter longed to spend time outdoors and away from his computer.

Sutter, 36, heard that Dangerous Man Brewing Co. manages a community garden for the Sheridan Neighborhood Organization in northeast Minneapolis. He loves gardening, so he volunteered to help.

"It's kind of like exercising, in that there's the initial rush of, 'Yeah, I just did it and it feels good and I've got my endorphins pumping!'" he said. "But then there's also the long-term benefit. I got to know some really great people."

While he planted seeds, pulled weeds, watered plants and organized gardening tools, Sutter chatted with other volunteers, learning about the Twin Cities and Minnesota culture. Of course, he was glad to know the produce went to local families in need, but that wasn't the main reason he volunteered. He did it for the experience.

"No matter how altruistic people's behaviors are, there is always an underlying element of, 'What am I getting out of this?'" he said.

As Sutter and many others attest, people who volunteer reap benefits potentially exceeding what they contribute to their communities.

That's why for this year's installment of our annual Reader Challenge series, the Star Tribune invites you to join the 35.5% of Minnesotans (more than 1.5 million) who volunteer.

That level of volunteer participation puts Minnesota third among states, behind Utah and Wyoming, and more than 12 percentage points above the U.S. average, according to a recent biannual U.S. Census report based on 2021 stats. It's higher than our fifth-place rank in 2019, although some studies put us second. Either way, maybe we could make first in 2023.

'My life has been enriched'

Volunteer not just to help others — although that's certainly one good reason — but to help yourself.

"My life is now more interesting," one volunteer said in a survey conducted late last year by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. Survey respondents echoed many variations of that statement.

"My life has been enriched."

"Makes me feel as if I still have something to contribute."

"I've met amazing people."

"I've discovered my purpose!"

Altogether, more than 90% of the survey's 113 respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their volunteer experience has changed their life in a positive way.

68-year-old Irene Ford sits in a chair and holds a baby as part of her foster grandparent volunteer work at the Northside Child Development Center.

Irene Ford, 68, of Minneapolis, spends time with infants as one of the foster grandparent volunteers at the Northside Child Development Center.

Where to start?

What should you volunteer to do? That might be best answered with another question: What do you like doing? Our quiz can help you start looking for a volunteer opportunity that's a good fit for you.

Many volunteer roles involve activities you already enjoy, like Sutter's gardening, redirected to help people, animals, the community, the planet.

"Think first about your own interests, passions and skills, and then recognize that there is a volunteer opportunity for just about everything you could be interested in," said Karmit Bulman, executive director of Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement. "The first step is self-examination."

Do you like to run, read, bake, bike, bowl, sail, sew, drive, play baseball, translate languages, take photos, make videos, style hair, play an instrument, give massages, assemble furniture, prepare taxes, host dinner parties or care for babies? There are volunteer roles that fit each of those activities.

Our quiz can help you narrow it down from there, and search engines can help you find specific opportunities. As of this writing, VolunteerMatch.org listed 228 formal volunteering opportunities, in and around Minneapolis. Searchable volunteer roles are also available at HandsOn Twin Cities, Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and the Greater Twin Cities United Way.

You might find some by word of mouth, talking to friends who love their own volunteer work. Or check out the Volunteer Challenge Facebook page that we launched as a place to share ideas, find opportunities and see how the challenge is going for others. The Star Tribune also publishes a list of opportunities every Saturday.

Join the Volunteer Challenge on Facebook

During the month of March, The Star Tribune will be exploring the various elements of volunteering, from how to find an opportunity that fits you to how helping others can have a boomerang effect and make your life better. And each Saturday, we'll lay down a challenge for an action you can take. Join this group to share details of your journey and help keep each other motivated. Join here

If you're interested in a particular organization, you can contact them directly (most of them have websites listing volunteer positions). Beyond the familiar homeless shelters, food shelves, humane societies and nursing homes, organizations that rely on volunteers include art galleries, Three Rivers parks, the Lake Harriet trolley and Cafesjian's Carousel in Como Park. You could mentor business owners, test water quality, lead a smoking cessation group or chat by phone with socially isolated older adults. You could do anything from adopting a fire hydrant to becoming a volunteer firefighter.

And, of course, you also can volunteer by getting behind a cause you consider important. VolunteerMatch sorts opportunities into categories ranging from advocacy and human rights to literacy and crisis support. Opportunities exist at all times and in all seasons, solo or with groups, out in the world or at home.

Pro bono roles also are in demand, if you have professional skills you'd like to channel for a cause.

"Nonprofits are thinking of how to leverage pro-bono volunteers in financial planning, operations planning, marketing, finance" and other fields, said Tracy Nielsen, executive director of HandsOn Twin Cities. "We're calling it volunteerism 2.0."

Last fall, Anand Murali spent a day using his professional marketing skills to help find ways Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue could draw potential business donors.

"We brainstormed a shortlist," said Murali, 37, of Woodbury. "We talked about four things that could be impactful and shared them back with [Peaceful Valley] in the form of a report."

But maybe the last thing you want to do when you leave the office or retire is more of your usual work. That's fine, too, Nielsen said. "Making sandwiches is great, packing food is great, it's all needed."

Sometimes the pleasure of volunteer tasks comes from letting your thoughts drift as you do the tasks, said high school senior Yasmine Tesema of Robbinsdale.

A young woman stands at a table in a storage room. She's pointing a spray bottle at a coat laid out on the table alongside a pile of other clothing items.

Yasmine Tesema, 17, of Robbinsdale sorts items at the Golden Valley thrift store Shop for Change.

Tesema, 17, plans to study neuroscience and technology at the University of Minnesota, someday working to develop technologies to treat brain disorders. But for now, she enjoys her weekly shifts of "mindless" work sorting items for Shop for Change, the thrift store operated by PRISM (People Responding in Social Ministry) in Golden Valley.

"I love the place," she said. "Sometimes when I'm sorting clothes I try to come up with a back story of how this item was used, the meaning of this item to someone else. It's peaceful. I don't know how to describe it, but it makes me happy."

Finally, consider the possibility that you're already volunteering and don't even know it. Not because you're sleepwalking, but because you regularly shovel your elderly neighbor's sidewalk, or bake bars for church gatherings, or chaperone school field trips, or watch a friend's children while they're at work. The volunteer community has begun recognizing these as "informal volunteering" and about 62% of Minnesotans do it in some form, according to AmeriCorps.

How ever you decide to approach our volunteering challenge, you'll know your work is appreciated and important.

"We are always in need of volunteers. Period. End of story," said Kathryn Tiede, associate vice president of philanthropy at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. "There is no place we couldn't take more."