Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement

Report date
February 2015

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

An invitation from the League of Minnesota Cities to do a roundtable with cities at their June 2014 conference gave us the opportunity to connect with cities’ representatives to learn about their concerns, current use of volunteers and interests for the future. To get prepared for this, we worked with the volunteer manager from the City of Red Wing to develop a tip sheet for starting a city volunteer program, providing a useful product early on in the project period. One of the cities at the roundtable followed up and invited us to attend a city council meeting. We did a presentation for the City Council involving another city to give examples from practice. We were able to watch the process of a City Council voting to start a volunteer program, a useful learning experience to hear the discussion that lead to that decision. The roundtable at the League of Cities conference provided contacts and knowledge that got the project off to a solid start.
Interviews with eight staff from cities and contacts with 16 additional cities provided a good understanding of the wide range of how cities are currently engaging volunteers and how this varies in cities of different sizes around the state. We learned examples of what cities are doing through volunteers which allowed us to connect cities interested in involving volunteers in an area with a city that was already doing that. For example, when the West St. Paul volunteer manager was looking for ideas on how to involve volunteers in a Police Department, we were able to connect her to a staff person in the police department in Moorhead that has a well-developed volunteer program. We learned how city volunteer programs started and shared that when advising other cities interested in starting a program. We gained an understanding of structure for staff support for volunteers in cities of different sizes and used that to answer questions from other cities. We also gained a list of the practical tools and resources that would be useful for cities as an outcome of this project. The knowledge gained from interviews with cities was supplemented by online research by MAVA for resources.
The process of offering subgrants and then forming a cohort group of the six grant recipient cities was a key component of
our progress. We did this through a formal RFP process with the League of Minnesota Cities and other MAVA partners
publicizing the opportunity. We received 16 proposals from cities of all sizes. Due to the potential of learning from these
cities, we requested permission from the Bush Foundation to expand the number of subgrants from four to six. The number
and diversity of responses was a good indicator of interest by cities in this project. To provide a breadth of input, we offered
three subgrants to small cities in Greater MN and three to Metro cities. MAVA staff met in person or via phone with the six
cities. We held a first phone meeting of the whole cohort group in the fall. The second meeting on February 25, 2015 will
give the rural cities a chance to talk with each other and the metro cities to talk with each other. The six cities were offered
access to MAVA workshops at no charge. Four of the cities accessed that resource and praised how valuable it was.

Key lessons learned

We learned about the high interest of cities to engage citizens in volunteer roles, confirming our assessment of what was happening in the state, and the interest in learning more about how to be successful. We were surprised a number of times in the first year of the project with the high interest in what was possible and what others were doing. We were surprised how newsworthy city volunteer engagement is when we were contacted by both the StarTribune and Pioneer Press regarding their interest in city volunteer engagement. The response to the RFP indicated high interest in submitting proposals for relatively small subgrants. Cities told us this amount of resources could make a critical difference, and of equal value was the opportunity to focus on something they wanted to do. The opportunity to be part of a cohort group and to learn from other cities about their volunteer engagement was viewed as a real value. We were also surprised how interested the cities were to attend MAVA volunteer management training with organizations other than cities. As a result of this, we requested to use some grant funds to offer scholarships for cities to attend the three-day MAVA Conference.
We learned that cities are innovating and trying new ideas in engaging citizens to help their city. When we talked with the Mayor of Rothsay, he told us he was trying out a new way to engage volunteers for events that he had learned from another city. When we talked with the person managing volunteers for the Police Department in Moorhead, we learned how one of their residents had approached them with the idea of starting a volunteer program based on one he had seen in another state. From the volunteer manager for four cities in the southeast metro, we learned of the innovation of the cities going together to hire a part-time volunteer manager and using similar formats for their volunteer programs. A key value our project could ultimately bring is setting up vehicles to enhance the community of innovations in volunteer involvement between cities.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

In the first year of the project, the element of inclusive was very valuable. We sought to get input and involvement from
a wide range of cities and from the perspectives of a diversity of roles within the city (volunteer management staff,
mayor, elected official, volunteer, city staff, etc.). There is so much diversity in the sizes and structures of cities in
Minnesota that the inclusion of as many different perspectives as possible is critical. As we move forward in our work
we believe an important step is to get a perspective from volunteers who have been successful in working in a city
volunteer role. Their insights will be valuable to those seeking to build a program. We are making a plan to build a
resource of information on the value seen from the volunteer’s perspective.

Understanding the problem

We entered this process with a general idea of interest by cities to do more through volunteers, the need for resources
on how to do that, and the assumption that great innovations were occurring in some cities in volunteer engagement. In
the first year we gained clarity on the extent of the interest and specifics on the need for resources. The best part has
been hearing from cities about innovations in citizen engagement they have tried, and hearing from cities about
innovations they have heard by other cities and tracing down the full story. There is an informal process going on
among cities in learning innovations in citizen engagement and working hard to accelerate that process of learning
about innovations among cities. The interest of city personnel in pursuing learning in the field and growing their ability
to engage their residents as a resource for improving services is clearly there.

If you could do it all over again...

To calmly accept that this would be a learning process that would take many twists and turns. In initial contacts with
cities, we felt the pressure to provide answers to questions where that knowledge base had yet to be developed. We
learned that cities are most interested in learning from each other and, if we could facilitate that, we did not need to have all the answers.

One last thought

We believe that our assessment of interest on the part of cities was correct, and we are proud to partner with the Bush
Foundation in building a base of knowledge for success and structures that will promote successful citizen involvement.