Building Better Communities Through Empowered Volunteers

Dakota County, Minnesota, shares insight into its successful volunteering program.

Apr 23, 2019 | BLOG POST

by Rebecca DeSantis, content and engagement coordinator, ICMA

"Be More" reads the slogan at the top of Dakota County, Minnesota's online volunteer database. This simple, yet impactful phrase invites current and potential volunteers to search through the database to find a path to volunteer service that fits their interest. Dakota County is one jurisdiction that exemplifies the sentiments of ICMA's celebration of Volunteering Month.

Situated in the southeast corner of the Twin Cities Metropolitan area, Dakota County is the third-most populous county in the state of Minnesota. The population of the county has grown significantly over the past few decades as development continues to move outward from the urban core of Minneapolis and St. Paul, into suburban municipalities. This booming county not only saw a growth of residents, but also a recent surge of volunteers. Reaching approximately 5,000 volunteers over the past few years, volunteers spend their time in more than 12 county departments. 

Garrett Zaffke, who has served as the county volunteer coordinator for the past four years, has been driving the growth of the volunteer program. "The program started four years ago with a blank slate," explains Zaffke. "My background in business operations, communications, and community engagement helped lay the foundation for what the program is currently. Our motto has been 'building better communities through empowered volunteers' and we hold true to that every day."

Running a volunteer program doesn't lend itself to a 'typical' day. "Some days I am in the office all day crunching numbers and doing data management," notes Zaffke. "Other days, I am up to my waist in invasive plants out in the middle of the woods. I also am in charge of marketing and promoting our opportunities to the community, so I find myself in many different organizations, schools, universities, cities, etc."

Zaffke has found that the volunteering program has had a signifiant impact on the county and the residents. The program adds a level of transparency and trust to our communities. Zaffke says that volunteers can partner with county staff to work on projects and learn the 'behind the scenes' of how county projects roll out and where their tax money goes. "It has been a great community relations asset (which was our intention) to help educate and teach our communities about local government and the role it plays in their everyday life," explains Zaffke, speaking to the positive outcomes of an involved and informed community.

One of the most impressive aspects of the Dakota County volunteer program is the online database of volunteer opportunities -- an 'open market approach' of sorts. "Volunteers control when and what they volunteer for by searching through our volunteer database. The database will let volunteers know what they can or cannot do based on experience level, age, training, etc." says Zaffke. "This flexibility allows us to offer opportunities that fit a variety of schedules and preferences while not compromising on quality. It also allows us to market ourselves to a wide and diverse pool of potential volunteers."

This database has certainly paid off for streamlining the volunteering program. Because residents choose their volunteer experience through the database, onsite coordinators can focus their attention on ensuring the program is running smoothly, rather than having to make sure the right volunteers were found. Onsite coordinators lead volunteers for their department's programs, which allows for high-quality, high-touch volunteer experiences at programs and events. Zaffke is then able to focus his efforts more on the big-picture management of the program, including data management, communications, recruitment, and marketing.

It has not always been easy to match volunteers with departments, according to Zaffke. "When I first started out, I had to find departments that I know we could have significant 'wins' with utilizing volunteers. Once other departments saw what could be accomplished with volunteers, they were willing to utilize them. I can now ask county departments what they wish they could get done, but can't with limited staff and resources, and we find volunteers who are capable and willing to help fill in that gap."

Zaffke has faced some personal challenges in managing the volunteer programs. "No longer am I able to be at every event and get to meet every volunteer. " Zaffke had to adjust to the position of being a program driver and building connections with stakeholders. "We want our experiences to have lasting impact on our volunteers and the county, and a lot of that comes from forming relationships, which always gets trickier when organizations grow. We especially want to form relationships with our volunteers so that they stay longer and we get better return on investment from them."

There is a lot to learn from Dakota County's volunteer program and the work of its staff. Zaffke offers a few pieces of advice from his experience:

  • Don’t be afraid to start small.
  • Keep high quality (relationships, communications, programming, marketing, etc.) at the forefront and things will fall into line.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; we all do!
  • Learn from the mistakes and network with people so that you do not have to invent the wheel over and over again.
  • Learn to negotiate and fight for your cause. If you cannot convince people of the importance of what you do and why the world would be for worse if your organization did not exist, you will not be able to convince people to freely give of their time and resources.
  • Remember that people spend time and resources in places where they feel passionate and needed.
  • Learn to have fun as much as you can and make sure to leave work at work. Burning out has never helped anyone or advanced a cause. Spend time with your family and friends to enjoy life so that when you do step into the office, you are ready to give it your all.

Setting up a successful volunteer program is no small task, but the returns can be impactful for your community. Zaffke reminds us that "Dakota County succeeds when its residents succeed, and volunteering is an important piece of that puzzle."

Looking to create a robust volunteer program for your community? Download ICMA's guide "How to Build a Successful Volunteer Program" today!


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