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Twin Cities United Way seeks volunteers to help the needy -- for as little as 15 minutes

Timeworn? Maybe. But the adage “many hands make light work” will surely be proven true at a unique Greater Twin Cities United Way event next week when hundreds of folks from all walks of life gather downtown and at nonprofits in the area to lend a volunteer hand.

But will the dollars follow?

Gas prices are high, food prices rising and the economy is unsteady, all affecting potential donors. But social needs, too, are climbing. So what’s a mega charity on the cusp of its fall fundraising campaign to do?  Get creative.

In these uncertain economic times, the Greater Twin Cities United Way (the second largest UW in the nation for the dollars it both collects and doles out) is using a carrot approach to reach out to potential donors.

Call it strategery.  

Next Thursday, Aug. 18, folks near and far, as individuals or in groups, have the opportunity to try on a little volunteering. There are a couple of options for the Find Your Way effort with sign up happening now.

Sign on for the bus crawl, an agency tour and volunteer project, running from 7:45 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Buses depart Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome Plaza in the morning and head to five United Way partner agencies. Volunteers may choose to sort and box groceries at the Emergency Foodshelf Network Inc. warehouse in New Hope, for instance, or to wield a paint brush at Pillsbury House in Minneapolis. There’s room for 200 on the buses.

Or speed-volunteer at downtown sites either on the first floor of the City Center building at 33 S. Sixth St. Minneapolis or at Ecolab Plaza at 370 Wabasha St. N. in St. Paul. Donate 15 minutes or more time during the 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. lunch hour to package healthy snacks for kids or tie blankets for homeless persons, or to accomplish some other good deed. United Way hopes for 600 but could handle 1,000 volunteers.

Still, there’s that question again, does volunteering add up to dollars?

More donations?
After volunteering, will people be primed to sign on to the United Way campaign beginning in September — that is, open their wallets to contribute to the nonprofits that provide for basic, health and education needs for the less fortunate?

“There is a pretty strong correlation between volunteering and giving. That’s been proven again and again,’’ says Andy Goldman-Gray, a senior vice president with Greater Twin Cities United Way. 

The volunteering gig, says Goldman-Gray, is the “entry point” to the community. “Whether it’s an hour or a dollar or whatever they contribute it all adds up to the benefit the community,’’ he says. 

“It’s about empowerment for our community and putting action behind the 2011 campaign theme, ‘Every One Counts,’’’ explains John Wilgers, the 2011 United Way Campaign Chair an managing partner of Ernst and Young. “This is a chance for company, faith-based organizations, youth, groups or individuals — for all of us to appreciate that ‘Every One Counts.’ ’’

Last year Greater Twin Cities United Way’s fall campaign to support basic needs, education and health efforts in the community raised $87 million, $2 million over their goal. That’s probably not too surprising because the Twin Cities has proven over and over it’s a community that gives back. This year the goal is $88 million.

And the need is great. Calls to United Way’s 211 state-wide referral line last year swelled to 400,000 referrals, “near top limits,’’ says Goldman-Gray. United Way says more than half a million people in the TC metro live at or near the poverty level.

Also consider: The 200-some food shelf members of the Emergency Foodshelf Network in Hennepin County in April, May and June of this year reported 200,000 visits for food, a 20 percent increase over last summer, according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Saevig.

About three times a week groups come to the Emergency Foodshelf Network warehouse to sort and pack foods, to the tune of 14,000 volunteers a year, necessary, she says, as the need for food has gone up 63 percent since 2005. Food needs rose during the state shutdown as well.

Food and dollar donations from individuals are steady, Saevig says, but corporate donations are not growing. “I don’t think they’re putting a whole lot of resources into community,” she says. The food shelf network receives no dollars from the state, but as much as $250,000 a year from Hennepin County, depending on food needs.

Bad economy
What about the effect on giving to nonprofits of a volatile stock market and a weak economy?

“It’s sort of hard to tell right now” how these will affect the September and October campaign, yet most of their donors, Goldman-Gray says, give from their paychecks, rather than stock or other assets.

Most people, he acknowledges, are much more willing to give of their time than their money and volunteer help is great. “That’s always the trick for any nonprofit: How do you hook those volunteers into getting them to give, because you need money for general operating costs?’’

Still, Goldman-Gray takes the long-range view. Even if people cannot contribute financially today or next week, “This is really about engaging people in the community at a much deeper level. Maybe in October or a year from October they may be in a better position to contribute.’’

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