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Minnesota nonprofits look for new ways to diversify their volunteer ranks

25December 2021

Every day, up to 100 volunteers at the Twin Cities’ largest food pantry distribute food, answer phones, greet clients and even help with administrative projects — becoming the face of Bloomington nonprofit VEAP to the hundreds they serve.

But while people of color make up about 25% of Bloomington’s population, most of the organization’s volunteers are white. So VEAP (short for Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People) is signing on to a new program in January to assess race and equity in volunteerism.

“We know that our volunteer corps doesn’t fully reflect the diversity of our entire community and that means we need to do a better job,” said Courtney Flug, VEAP’s volunteer director. “If we do have a better representation of all people in our community, then we’ll provide better services to our community members.”

In the new assessment, the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA) will help VEAP examine its policies, practices and possible changes that could help diversify its volunteer force.

“The way volunteerism has been working only works for white people,” said Karmit Bulman, MAVA’s executive director. “People of color, people who are marginalized, are not going to come to white institutions to volunteer until there’s a bold overhauling of the systems in which volunteerism were built.”

After Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd in 2020, setting off a racial justice movement worldwide, many nonprofits and foundations doubled down on diversifying their staffing and board members.

Nonprofits added training on diversity, equity and inclusion and re-examined how to better support employees of color. Foundations increased funding for racial justice work, gave more money to organizations led by people of color and sought to make internal reforms — from scrutinizing who makes grant decisions to boosting the flexibility of how grants are used.

Now Bulman’s phone is ringing off the hook from nonprofits across the country asking for help in confronting the lack of equity in volunteerism.

It comes at an important time, not just for racial equity but for philanthropy. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, some nonprofits have struggled with volunteer shortages as people who have usually given their time — many of them older adults more susceptible to complications arising from the coronavirus — opted out due to virus concerns.

“It took the death of George Floyd and this horrible pandemic … with volunteerism decimated, for people to say ‘We need to rebuild in a way that’s more equitable,'” Bulman said.

Building trust

Thanks to a grant from the Minneapolis Foundation, MAVA held listening sessions in November 2020 and March 2021 with 40 volunteers of color, paying them for their time. They identified barriers such as background checks and formal processes (such as interviews and formal training), an unwelcoming environment, lack of trust in the organization and lack of compensation, especially for low-income volunteers.

The feedback led to new recommendations from MAVA, urging nonprofits to examine the ways that systemic racism affects volunteerism and to work with more communities of color and immigrants on creating new equitable systems.

Examples include developing different ways to volunteer, having leaders of color engage with volunteers and convening listening sessions with volunteers of color. Providing childcare on-site or transportation subsidies could help draw low-income volunteers.

Minnesota has grown increasingly diverse in recent years, with people of color making up about 20% of the state’s population. According to 2019 census data, about 45% of white Minnesotans and 23% of Minnesotans of color volunteer. But those numbers don’t show a full picture, Bulman said, because many more people of color are volunteering through their churches, schools or informal neighborhood groups.

“They don’t call it volunteerism. They don’t get the recognition,” Bulman said. “So many nonprofits that are now looking to rebuild and get those volunteers back are saying ‘Where are the volunteers?’ We’re saying, they’re there. They’re from communities of color and you haven’t reached them. You haven’t built relationships with them, you haven’t built trust with them.”

The Art Institute of Chicago announced in September it was ending its volunteer docent program — made up mostly of older white women — to rebuild it to reflect the city’s diversity and pay educators in an effort to appeal to all income levels, according to the New York Times. But the move set off a backlash.

“I think there’s a lot being stirred up as a result of what the Art Institute did,” Bulman said. “It was bold, but what [it has] done is recognize that volunteerism is often only done by white people and privileged people.”

Bulman and her staff at MAVA have taken their work to heart. The small nonprofit revamped its own hiring practices and policies, and added salary amounts to job postings — part of a broader trend to bolster transparency about pay and ensure that compensation is equitable. Bulman said MAVA has diversified its seven-member staff and 10-member board, both of which number about 40% people of color.

“We are practicing what we preach … making sure that we’re being really intentional in everything we do,” she said.

In Bloomington, VEAP also diversified its staffing and formed a diversity, inclusion and equity team in 2019. But Flug said more is needed to draw diverse volunteers, which it relies on to shore up the work of its 24 employees.

“It’s critically important we address the systemic inequities that have existed for a long time,” she said. “We’re in this work for the long haul. We recognize there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Ary Mendoza started volunteering during the pandemic at VEAP and has had to cut back on his volunteer hours while juggling two jobs.

Through one of his jobs at Bloomington’s public access TV channel, he’s helped spread the word in Spanish to the Latino community about the volunteer opportunities.

It’s important more Latinos volunteer at VEAP, he said, so clients seeking help feel welcomed and are served by fellow Spanish speakers.

“At some point, we all need help in some way,” Mendoza said. “When you get there and you find another person who speaks your language, that’s kind of like [showing] ‘We care about you.'”

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