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White House and business leaders are pushing for more effective volunteerism

It didn't take long for Chuck Slocum to strike up a few conversations when he arrived Tuesday at the Summit on Corporate Volunteerism in Manhattan.

"The first five people I met had Minnesota connections," he says.

That's not surprising. The state continues to be a hot zone for volunteerism.

In 2006, Minnesota's 40.4 percent "volunteer rate" — the percentage of the adults who give away their time for this cause or that — ranked third highest in the country. The national average was 26.7 percent. Minnesota's state's retention rate, the portion of adults who volunteered for more than a year, led all states. (For more on the rankings, check this site.)

Minnesota is a national model for volunteerism, says Shannon Maynard, executive director of the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation.

Time for a tune-up?
All that is not to say that the nation, even including Minnesota, couldn't use more volunteerism, executed more effectively. Slocum says officials at 95 percent of the nation's 1.6 million nonprofits don't think they have enough resources to meet the needs of their constituencies.


What's more, according to estimates released last month by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the country's volunteerism rate has been falling. Last year, it dropped to 26.2 percent. Just two years earlier, it was 28.8 percent.

Critics say the Bush administration's volunteerism push, launched with great fanfare by the president in 2002, has been running out of steam. Three weeks ago, a New York Times story suggested that Bush's initiatives began flagging after he lost top volunteerism aide John Bridgeland in 2003 and then got distracted by the Iraq war.

But Slocum, who represented Minnesota businesses at the summit, contends there's more to the story. He and Maynard say the event kicked off a new drive for more focused volunteerism designed to better match deep reservoirs of corporate talent — in such fields as technology, marketing, finance, strategic development and human relations — with the needs of nonprofits' constituencies.

Spotlight on Target
Laysha Ward, vice president of community relations for Target, was billed as one of the summit's star speakers. She talked up Target's volunteerism and its related charitable giving, which traces its roots to the philanthropy institutionalized by the department store empire founded by Minnesota's Dayton family. Last year, the company gave away $150 million to community causes across the country. Target says its employees donate at least 315,000 hours annually to work on more than 7,000 projects.

In mid-April, Target's role as a poster child in the reinvented volunteerism push will surface again in Chicago. The company will join the Deloitte & Touche accounting firm and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to co-host a "Pro Bono Round Table" for corporate foundation leaders.

At the summit, Deloitte announced a commitment of volunteer time valued at $50 million over the next three years. Maynard says that's the largest pledge so far in a campaign to reach a goal of $1 billion by 2010.

Deloitte plans to pay its employees for this work and include it in their job appraisals, much as law firms credit their attorneys for "pro bono" work they do for worthy causes. Maynard hopes this idea will spread to many other companies.

Last year, $850 million in federal funds went to support volunteerism programs: largely AmeriCorps (the domestic version of the Peace Corps), Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America (school programs). Minnesota got $20 million of that.

All well and good, says Slocum, a former executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership who now has his own consulting company, the Williston Group.

"But government can go only so far," he says. "What is now emerging is a serious effort on the part of employers to encourage their workforce to use their own skills to build a better community and world."

Call it "smarter volunteerism." 

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