Volunteerism fuels nonprofits in Eastern Iowa Corridor

National Volunteerism Week begins April 6

Published: March 27 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:12 am in

A tall man was standing at the whiteboard in fourth-grade teacher Brad Koch's classroom at Prairie Ridge Elementary in Cedar Rapids as students returned from their art special on a previous Thursday this month.

"Joe's back — J.A. Joe," Mr. Koch told his students.

"Hi, Joe," the students called out.

"J.A. Joe" is Joe Kell, of Fairfax, a volunteer instructor through Junior Achievement of Eastern Iowa. Kell was teaching a lesson on banking, which is the third in a five-part weekly series about how people and businesses manage their money.

The students played a board game illustrating how positive and negative transactions affect a balance sheet, and they studied the differences among debits, credits, checks and cash.

"I'm going to tell my mom, 'We learned about money, so when we go to the store, I can teach you,'" said a pony-tailed nine-year-old named Janiyah Harris.

Kell, who was on break from his job at GE Capital, is one of 1,300 volunteers that fuel Junior Achievement, which leans on volunteers to boost work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy among kindergarten-through-grade-12 students. The volunteers teach 1,900 classes a year, reaching about 42,000 students in 10 eastern Iowa counties, including Linn and Johnson.

It's the highest concentration of services provided of any Junior Achievement chapter in the nation, said Erin Gray, senior operations director.

National Volunteerism Week will begin April 6, and it is a time when many organization recognize their volunteers. Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Iowa as a whole have among the strongest volunteer rates in the nation.

"A lot of our organizations could not exist without volunteers," said Sue Driscoll, volunteer engagement manager for United Way of East Central Iowa.

As of 2012, the most recent data from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), Iowa City ranked No. 4 with 44.3 percent of the population reporting volunteer activities, and Cedar Rapids, with 38.2 percent, ranked No. 10 among mid-sized American cities.

The state ranked No. 5 for volunteerism, with a rate of 36 percent. The largest contributions were to religious and educational efforts, according to CNCS.

Leveraging volunteers to meet an organization's mission is a sign of an efficiently and effectively run charity, Driscoll said.

Junior Achievement, perhaps as much as any organization, relies on volunteers to expand their reach and carry out their mission.

And that's not just praise. The value can be seen in the balance sheet.

Junior Achievement reported on its 2011 Schedule D financial filing that it received $552,815 in in-kind contributions in the form of volunteerism and use of facilities. The in-kind contributions more than doubled the value of the organization's spending on program services, $513,397, and stretched the value of the overall expense budget of $1 million, by about 50 percent, based on information in the 2011 tax form 990.

The Junior Achievement chapter's formula uses a $25-per-hour equivalency, Gray said. According to the organization's annual report, that reflects average local wages in the counties in which it operates, which the organization estimates it would have to pay to provide those services.

Because the volunteers must be trained and they are providing a specialized service, their support can be considered an in-kind contribution, Gray said.

"If we didn't have this vast array of volunteers going into schools, we'd have to pay for it," Gray said.

While 990s are a common way to get a snap shot of organizational efficiency, in-kind contributions are reported separately, and in some cases the value and effect of volunteerism is hidden.

"I think we have an exceptionally high number of nonprofits in the city of Cedar Rapids," said Kayla Lyftogt, president of Leaders in Volunteerism in Cedar Rapids, an organization that works with not-for-profits to promote volunteerism. "We have a lot of larger nonprofits, and also a lot of smaller nonprofits that are dependent on people from the community volunteering.

"I think that is what makes our community special."

There are 470 registered public charities that filed a Form 990 with a combined reported revenue of $1.16 billion in Linn County as of December 2013, according to the National Center of Charitable Statistics.

Lyftogt said it's a growing trend for charities to seek skilled volunteers, such as accountants, lawyers or public relations specialists. The professional expertise allows organizations to build capacity, but the relationship also provides roles for volunteers that allow them to see their effect, she said.

"It's a trend in the field of nonprofits right now," Lyftogt said. "It's attached to volunteer engagement. Volunteers really want to feel like they make a difference.

"It is highly valuable to nonprofits, and it also makes individuals really feel like it is something that if they had not done, the nonprofit would not have been able to complete."

"Money is always an issue that nonprofits deal with. If you can have someone highly skilled perform a service, it lessens the stress of financial burden for the nonprofit," she said.

How to help:

The United Way of East Central Iowa offer a runs the Volunteer Now website at http://unitedwayofeastcentraliowa.org/volunteernow. Or you can call 319-398-5372.

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