With coronavirus cases rising, some Minnesota nonprofits are facing an urgent shortage of volunteers just as crucial holiday fundraisers loom — from toy drives to the Salvation Army’s bell ringers.
At the start of the pandemic, some nonprofits actually reported a surge in the number of Minnesotans who wanted to help, especially those volunteering for the first time.
But now, the worsening outbreak may be deterring volunteers who are tapped out by nonprofits’ increasing calls for help, especially as food shelves see unprecedented demand for aid. Nonprofits also rely on more older adults who may be more vulnerable to coronavirus complications.
“As this has gone on, there’s a level of fatigue that’s kicked in,” said Brian Molohon, executive development director at the Salvation Army’s Northern Division in Minnesota and North Dakota. “We’re concerned because the need has certainly not gone away. It’s increased ... we can’t do all the things we do to serve those in need without volunteers. It’s impossible.”
The Salvation Army is seeing a lack of volunteer sign-ups for shifts to sort and distribute food at its food shelves, ring bells and sort and distribute gifts for children in need.
Tracy Nielsen, who heads Minneapolis-based HandsOn Twin Cities, which connects volunteers to organizations, saw skyrocketing interest in volunteering when the pandemic first hit last spring and then another influx of help after George Floyd’s death led to unrest in Minneapolis and St. Paul. But now, she said, fatigue is setting in for volunteers and nonprofits.
“We’re all trying to assess what’s the new reality,” she said. “The future is uncertain, but the only thing we know is we have to keep changing.”
About half of the posts on HandsOn’s site are online or remote events such as tutoring or mentoring, and Nielsen doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon, particularly as COVID-19 spread worsens. She said companies no longer encourage volunteering in the community due to concerns employees could contract the coronavirus and miss work.
Instead, more businesses are interested in volunteer events employees can do at home, Nielsen said, adding that HandsOn has distributed more than 70,000 kits — from snack packs to school supplies — that volunteers have put together at home for a nonprofit. Other Minnesota companies like Allianz Life, the insurance company, have promoted virtual volunteering during the pandemic; General Mills started a program in April paying employees to volunteer at local food-related charities.
And the Twin Cities United Way has pivoted to virtual events, with volunteers assembling kits on their own of household supplies for formerly homeless families that will be distributed in December.
Last spring, 5,000 people in two weeks signed up to volunteer at Metro Meals on Wheels to deliver meals to doorsteps of seniors and people with disabilities. But that interest has since waned to normal levels.
Pat Rowan, executive director of the association of 32 Meals on Wheels programs, said the program has cut back the number of volunteer routes to deliver the same number of meals but less frequently to minimize COVID-19 risk.
Second Harvest Heartland, one of seven food banks in Minnesota, needs about 400 volunteers a week to sort and pack food. The number of volunteers from March to September dipped nearly in half compared with last year.
When the pandemic first hit, Second Harvest scaled back volunteering to 10 people at a time in its sprawling Brooklyn Park warehouse. Now it has now bumped that up to 25 people a shift to try to keep up with the growing need for food while maintaining social distancing and wearing masks.
“We’re always looking for that support,” Greene said.
Ruth Bueckers, 72, of Minneapolis is more likely to be deterred from volunteering because of snowy roads this winter, not COVID-19. The retired Xcel Energy human resources employee is bucking the trend, volunteering more during the pandemic.
Three days a week she spends 90 minutes at Second Harvest sorting bread, filling pouches with oatmeal or putting together food boxes after getting her temperature taken and donning a mask and gloves. It’s a good break from home projects, she said, and is something meaningful to do.
“I’m a volunteer junkie,” she said. “Someday I could be on the receiving end.”
The Salvation Army will place more than 300 red kettles across the Twin Cities starting Nov. 13 through Christmas Eve, but the number of volunteers signed up to ring bells is short by a third compared with last year.
Molohon said volunteers will wear masks, and the equipment will be sanitized, with plastic shields at some kettles indoors.
Because of the pandemic, the Salvation Army anticipates fewer people will shop in person this year, which is why they are pushing online giving, aiming to raise $10 million. Year-end giving usually draws about two-thirds of its annual revenue. The nonprofit also partnered with Walmart for the first time to get customers to round up purchases as a way of donating through Dec. 31.
If not enough volunteers sign up for the food shelves and other positions, the nonprofit’s employees will fill the gaps. The organization is even installing “kettleless kettles” — kettle stands without a kettle but with a sign with a QR code that people can scan with their phone to donate online or use bump pay options via Apple Pay or Google Pay. But Molohon said it’s not as effective as having a volunteer there greeting people.
“It’s all connected to COVID,” he said of the volunteer shortage. “It’s a critical situation.”