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Building on relationships in the community

United Way focuses on impact in community, volunteers

The United Way of Freeborn County is hoping to expand the good it can do in the community through two new positions focused on strengthening its volunteer base and community impact.

The first position is through the national AmeriCorps Volunteers In Service to America program, which aims to strengthen organizations that alleviate poverty. Participants in the program serve in an office setting and gain experience and leadership skills, preparing members for a life of service in the public, private or nonprofit sector, according to the AmeriCorps website. They work on things such as fundraising, grant writing, research or volunteer recruitment.

Executive Director Erin Haag said the ultimate goal is to build infrastructure for the organization and pass that on and help it be sustainable.

For the United Way of Freeborn County, that means a focus on volunteers.

Alyssa Dale, of Owatonna, who graduated from Concordia University in St. Paul with a degree in communications, said she had always wanted to be a part of the AmeriCorps program. She saw the opportunity through the United Way and applied for it.

Haag said after talking with various nonprofits, she said she discovered that many needed help with volunteer recruitment. She asked them what their formal volunteer recruitment plan is, but many did not have one.

Having been an AmeriCorps VISTA herself, Haag said she realizes what the VISTA program could do. Without the ability to hire more staff, she said she knew they could leverage their resources through the program, and applied and got accepted for the program in January 2020. She was ready to roll that out before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, but it was ultimately delayed.

Dale will look specifically at building infrastructure for volunteer recruitment, looking at things like why people volunteer, pitfalls that might frustrate volunteers and other barriers.

The work will go hand-in-hand with work of Nikolle Guion, who started at the United Way in November as community impact coordinator and focuses on connecting resources to clients.

Guion recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work. She said she had done some volunteering with Haag previously and got to know her through the winter coat drive through Lakeview Elementary School. After that was over, she continued to check in and see if there were volunteer opportunities. Ultimately, Haag offered her a job.

“We work really well together,” Guion said. “Erin works so well with so many community leaders.”

With relationships already in place with stakeholders, Guion said they can focus on making sure needs are met in the community, with everything from food and clothing to face masks, through schools and Public Health.

Guion said because of relationships already in place, COVID-19 has not been as big of a barrier as it could have been.

“I’m really excited I have a person to add to that and build those relationships,” Haag said.

The women said though the United Way is only open by appointment at this time, they want people to know they are available and have the ability to connect people with resources.

Haag shared some examples of where they have been able to help people in the community with household goods donated.

She said in one instance, the manager of the Semcac shelter contacted her about a need for microwaves. In another case, they got information from a member of the NAMI group that meets at the United Way. He had received beans through a food pantry but did not have a pot to make them in. They were able to get some pots and pans donated and then also gave the person information about cooking classes.

“We’re kind of filling in the gaps,” Haag said. “We don’t have the capacity to do car repairs, but by golly, we can handle the pots and pans, maybe a dress shirt or a shoes.”

Haag said community impact and volunteer engagement are key to building a good donor base.

“If you involve volunteers, if you involve community, they they believe in what you’re doing,” she said. “They can see the impact, and they feel invested.”

She referenced a quote from Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I’ll forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll learn.”

“As we look at the community impact model, we are looking for ways we can expand our services to our community by developing programs that support existing nonprofits or run in partnership with volunteers to fill in the gaps.”

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