A million reasons to volunteer: Dakota County saved $900,000 last year in donations of time

The first Dakota County Volunteer Fair was held on Monday at the Dakota County Western Service Center in Apple Valley. The two-hour event drew about 200 people, according to organizers.  Photo submitted
The first Dakota County Volunteer Fair was held on Monday at the Dakota County Western Service Center in Apple Valley. The two-hour event drew about 200 people, according to organizers. Photo submitted

A few hundred local residents attended the first Dakota County Volunteer Resource Fair on Monday at the Western Service Center in Apple Valley.
The fair aimed to match volunteers with organizations that need help with a variety of tasks and the financial benefits of getting it done for free.

Dakota County volunteer coordinator Garrett Zaffke organized the fair, which included 14 different groups, including Dakota County and the cities of Apple Valley, Burnsville and Rosemount.

Government units are increasingly seeing the benefits of volunteerism.

Zaffke’s position was created two years ago, and it has led to a 50 percent increase in volunteerism across the county’s 12 departments in 2016 at an estimated savings of $900,000.

He said that’s a number that catches a lot of people’s attention, including volunteers, public officials and taxpayers.

“Volunteerism helps us do more without having to charge taxpayers more,” Zaffke said. “Dakota County is frugal with taxpayers dollars. Volunteerism is a great option to get the work done we have to get done.”

He said government units started making a more concerted effort to recruit and deploy volunteers in their organizations after the Great Recession that started in 2008.

The budget belt-tightening forced governments to think about how they could do more with less.

About the time the recession hit, Dakota County shed several jobs through retirement or attrition. Since that time, each department within the county was in charge of recruiting volunteers. Zaffke said his position aims to make volunteerism in Dakota County more effective and efficient.

That’s about creating a positive experience for both the volunteer and the county. If the volunteer has a good experience and feels the work they did had a positive impact, then they will be back for more, according to Zaffke, and they will invite their friends and neighbors to do the same.

He says volunteerism grows in this word-of-mouth way, but the fair was an effort to raise awareness of the volunteer opportunities in the community, and specifically Dakota County, to people who might not have been reached through networking.

Among the volunteer areas in the county are removing the invasive buckthorn tree species from parkland, assisting parole officers, water stewardship and reshelving books at branch libraries.

Zaffke said he was pleased with the turnout for the fair, which lasted two hours and was focused on involving organizations that have volunteer opportunities in Apple Valley or very close to it.

In addition to Apple Valley and Rosemount, the cities of West St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights were also represented at the fair. Following the same development arc as the county, the four cities created a joint volunteer coordinator position two years ago.

Zaffke said attendees he spoke to enjoyed the mix of volunteer opportunities for all ages.

Among the other organizations that were at the fair were the American Red Cross, Kids ’n Kinship, Burnsville Community Television, MOMS, DARTS, Neighbors Inc., Goodwill-Easter Seals and Allina Health.

He said if there is any trend in volunteerism, it is that people are looking for more one-time opportunities of a few hours rather than long-term commitments.

The reasons for volunteering are as individual as the person involved, but common reasons are the intrinsic value of giving back to the community, developing a skill, building a resume or meeting new people.

While Dakota County government likes the financial benefit of volunteers, Zaffke said showing people how government works and what it does provides another benefit.

“This brings the community on board with what we are doing,” Zaffke said.

He said another volunteer fair likely will be held in the fall.

Those who don’t want to wait that long can contact Zaffke at 651-438-4635 or garrett.zaffke@co.dakota.mn.us, or visit the websites of any of the cities or other organizations involved in the fair.

Contact Tad Johnson at tad.johnson@ecm-inc.com or at twitter.com/editorTJ.