Editor's note: This is the third in a series of stories about the purported rural leadership gap in Minnesota.
Rural communities need more leaders and more volunteers to keep things running than urban areas, but changing times are leaving rural communities "leadership-distressed."
According to a study designed by Ben Winchester for the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, rural communities are experiencing a decline in membership of traditional community organizations, and an increasing number of organizations requiring leadership.
Leaders of traditional rural community organizations report wearing many hats and increasing demands on their time, according to Winchester.
Craig Bakkelund is chairman of the board of the Granite Falls Community Foundation, and at 36 the youngest member of the board. He is also a commissioner on the city planning and zoning commission and an assistant Cub Scout master.
"Cub Scouts have three to four meetings a month, easily six hours a month," Bakkelund said. "Planning and zoning varies but lately is about two to six hours a month. My wife and I both work full-time and we have two kids, in kindergarten and fourth grade. They've got basketball practice and piano lessons, and on weekends my wife teaches Sunday school and I'm an usher, communion assistant and lector in our church."
Winchester cites an aging population of long-time residents, and different patterns of community involvement among younger newcomers moving back to rural areas.
Newcomers tend to become involved with geographically-dispersed, Internet-mediated interest groups, rather than long-term involvements with place-based organizations, Winchester said.
According to a study commissioned by The League of Women Voters, "Community engagement is often localized, personalized and tends to be channeled through individual and group-based activities rather than through established organizations. Involvement is often episodic and occurs in response to a particular problem rather than an on-going commitment."
"Episodic" is a word you hear a lot talking to volunteer coordinators of community organizations.
Ruth Ascher is executive director of the United Way of Southwest Minnesota, which oversees more than 40 programs, many of which are dependent on volunteers to operate.
"It's sometimes hard to get younger volunteers to do more than episodic volunteering," Ascher said. "But if they have a good experience they'll want to do another one down the road."
Leaders of community-based organizations all seem to agree that patterns of volunteerism have changed. Nowadays it's difficult to get young people to make long-term commitments to the older, more traditional place-based organizations such as Lions, Rotary, and Kiwanis.
"In all volunteer organizations young people are not as civic as they used to be," said Craig Opdahl, member of the Granite Falls Lions Club, "Part of living in a small city is doing things for non-profits."
Opdahl estimated the average age of Lions Club members in Granite Falls is about 45.
Kim Chistianson lives in Marshall and right now is busy helping to organize the fund-raising ball for Prairie Home Hospice.
"It is a struggle to get the young people involved," Christianson said, "and it's important - they bring new ideas and keep things fresh."
Christianson estimated the typical age range of the volunteers she works with from 50 to 60.
A lot of this might be explained by the mobility of young college graduates, who have to follow where the work leads for many years before they can set down permanent roots in a community. And at that stage of their lives, it is often difficult to schedule time for volunteer activities for more than short intervals.
Cal Brink, executive director of the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce, said one of the key functions of the Chamber is to serve as a platform for volunteerism, matching interested people with volunteer opportunities.
"We're trying to get college students involved in volunteering so they think, 'I wouldn't mind making Marshall a place to live,'" Brink said.
One untapped resource is recently retired and semi-retired people in the 55 to 70 age group who have time to volunteer and would like to give back to their communities, Brink said.
But to exploit the talents and energy of young people, new models or volunteerism are necessary.
"We look for people who have been involved in more short-term ways that seem to have an interest," Ascher said. "Some, though not all, will show they want to be involved in a more long-term way."
Today much of the problem seems to be coordinating the people, the time, and the project.