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As the coronavirus outbreak upends life in the state, there’s one thing many Minnesotans still continue to do no matter the risk — take care of one another.

Whether it’s lending neighbors extra rolls of toilet paper, offering free babysitting or making bagged lunches for those in need, Minnesotans have a reputation for putting others’ needs first. In fact, the state has consistently ranked at the top in the nation for its volunteerism. Minnesota came in second only to Utah in 2018, and the Twin Cities were ranked No. 1 among metro cities nationwide for its volunteer rates, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).

As a frequent volunteer herself, Sharon Carlson, of Andover, Minn., said she has seen the benefits of volunteering but never quite understood why Minnesota was so good at it.

“Volunteering builds confidence and it’s empowering,” Carlson said, “but I’m surprised that we have such high numbers.”

To get to the bottom of it all, Carlson enlisted the help of Curious Minnesota, our community-driven reporting project fueled by questions from readers.

The simple answer is that Minnesota has built an “infrastructure” of sorts that propels service and makes it easy for people to get involved in volunteerism.

The state’s abundance of nonprofit organizations, schools, places of worship and community opportunities in which people can volunteer gives the state a leg-up, said Samantha Jo Warfield, a CNCS spokeswoman. Service is at the core of many of these institutions, she said.

“Each state, each community is different,” Warfield said. “But in places like Minnesota, it was built on those values and those values haven’t really changed.”

Participating in causes one cares about is almost automatic, said Karmit Bulman, executive director of Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration.

“That’s kind of ingrained in who Minnesotans are,” Bulman said. “You see a problem, you see an issue, you see a community in need — you help.”

Maybe that’s the nice part of “Minnesota Nice” (and not the passive-aggressive part). The state also has a high population of those who volunteer in general — adults in their 30s and 40s. In 2017, Minnesota residents ages 35-44 volunteered the most, according to Minnesota Compass, a social indicators project of Wilder Research at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

This statistic is surprising to some, Warfield said, because many think those who are retired and have more free time often volunteer the most, but it’s actually the opposite. Many in their 30s and 40s have young families and want to get involved in their community, Warfield said.

However, volunteerism may look uncertain for the foreseeable future, as the coronavirus crisis is forcing organizations to suspend in-person volunteer efforts in order to comply with the Health Department’s social distancing suggestions. Even though the situation is unpredictable, many in Minnesota are still trying to help one another out, said Tracy Nielsen, the executive director of HandsOn Twin Cities.

“There’s still this overwhelming spirit of volunteerism, and people who want to care and make a difference,” Nielsen said. “So it’s really amazing to see that that spirit is still coming through, even during these times that none of us really know what’s going on.”

Organizations are now encouraging monetary donations, which, luckily, Minnesotans are already good at.

The majority of Minnesota’s volunteers fundraised or sold items to raise money in 2017, according to Minnesota Compass. Just last fall, GiveMN held its annual “giving holiday,” which raised a record of nearly $22 million for Minnesota nonprofits in one day.

Volunteering is not only done through official means, but also through simple things, Nielsen said.

“It doesn’t always have to look like a traditional volunteer opportunity,” Nielsen said. “I think, as Minnesotans would often agree, it’s that spirit of caring in collaboration that I think drives people to really want to get involved.” 

Michelle Griffith (michelle.griffith@startribune.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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