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Volunteer City, USA

Actually we're No. 2, but what else is there to do in Minneapolis in the winter?
by: Christopher Onstott Portlanders have consistently ranked among the most willing volunteers in the nation. Here, PSU graduate student Steve Braun helps plant native trees, shrubs and wildflowers at Tideman Johnson Park.

Ten years ago, Joy Cartier was one of three staff members at The Salvation Army's school for the homeless forced to close because of budget cutbacks. The three decided to start their own nonprofit to keep the work going. Within three months, they had nonprofit status. Within three weeks of opening p:ear, they had as many volunteers as they needed.

Getting volunteers has never been difficult in Portland, says Cartier, who has lived in San Francisco, London and Salt Lake City. P:ear has its home in Old Town, and 20 volunteers a week come in regularly to tutor children, play chess with them and cook meals. Some of those helpers come in during work hours because their bosses give them time off for volunteer activities.

Once a year, p:ear needs about 75 people to help stage a fundraiser. A call goes out to Hands On Greater Portland, among others, and before long the program has its 75.

'This is the most generous city I've ever lived in,' Cartier says.

If you're counting time rather than money, Portland is the second-most generous city in the country. Only Minneapolis has a higher volunteer rate than Portland among large cities.

It wasn't always that way, says Steven Johnson, who teaches classes on community engagement at Portland State University. Johnson has data on citizen activists who worked on local political issues, and until about 1980 Portlanders were pretty much the same as people elsewhere.

Then, groups of Portlanders came together to fight neighborhood battles. Eastside residents sued to stop the proposed Mount Hood Freeway. Others protested when urban renewal demolished what was the south edge of downtown. North Portland neighbors banded together to influence urban renewal poverty boards that advised the federal government on allocating urban renewal funds.

Rather than fight back, the city government, led by then-Mayor Neil Goldschmidt among others, embraced the civic activism, Johnson says. Neighborhood associations were formed to encourage citizens to advise government on what to do. In some cases, the city took up the very causes that began with the objections of volunteer activists.

A spirit of activism and citizens taking responsibility took root here, Johnson says, that is unlike anywhere else in the country. One of his favorite examples is the City Repair Project, which began with volunteers painting a Southeast Portland intersection (without permits) to slow traffic and turn it into an occasional public square. At first, Johnson says, the city objected. Now, there are 200 City Repair projects and many are funded and permitted by the city itself.

In other cities, Johnson says, volunteerism is church-based, but not here. Political activism has morphed into different types of volunteering, but they all have in common the idea that citizens take responsibility for their city.

'Portland is this bubble of a very different kind of activism,' he says. 'If everybody's doing it, then you tend to do it. When you move in here, it's almost like you're told a story by the Welcome Wagon. This is what we do in Portland. Government is open. You do it yourself.'

In 2000, Harvard University professor Robert Putnam published 'Bowling Alone,' which talked about how many Americans were becoming increasingly isolated from one another. But there's a contradictory Portland piece to that story, according to Johnson, who says Putnam emailed him in 2002 something to the effect of, 'Oh my God, we're trying to figure out what happened in Portland.'

Putnam's data showed that while the rest of the country had been seeing a steep drop-off in citizen volunteer involvement through the '70s, '80s and '90s, Portland's civic engagement rates had been climbing. A chapter in Putnam's follow-up book, 'Better Together,' focuses on the Portland anomaly.

An extra leap

Deborah Steinkopf, executive director of the Nonprofit Association of Oregon, moved to Portland three years ago after 20 years working for nonprofits in Chicago. She says she was immediately struck by how much more civically involved most people were. And she agrees with Johnson that Portland's history of volunteerism is connected to its history of political activism.

'If you don't feel you have a lot of input in terms of city government, how does that make you feel in terms of a sense of responsibility in creating a good quality of life, and contributing to the quality of life?' Steinkopf asks. 'It may take an extra leap for people to make that connection.'

Victoria Eggleston, co-president of the Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association, says professionalism has a lot to do with Portland's sustained level of volunteerism. Her organization trains certified volunteer administrators, and according to national data, there are more of those in the Portland area per capita than in any other city in the country. In fact, only Texas has more total certified volunteer administrators than Oregon.

Eggleston says there is a science to retaining volunteers: make it easy for them to get involved and help them feel their time is valued. For example, she says that anyone calling in to an organization about possibly volunteering must get a return call within 48 hours.

Local organizations such as Hands On Greater Portland have seen the value of trained administrators, Eggleston says.

'We make it easy for people to volunteer,' she says. 'All of these other cities and metro areas are trying to get people involved because they see the value in it and they go through all these hoops and all these incentives and it doesn't work because when people hit the ground they don't have a good experience.'

Entrepreneurial volunteers

Google 'volunteer Portland' and Hands On Greater Portland pops up first.

Hands On, which specializes in matching willing volunteers with needy organizations for one-time opportunities, connected 25,700 volunteers with more than 400 nonprofits last year, and that number has been steadily increasing, according to Executive Director Andy Nelson.

Nelson suspects that what distinguishes Portland is what he calls 'entrepreneurial volunteers,' people who have specific interests and start their own nonprofit or gather neighborhood volunteers around those interests.

He points to organizations such as the Portland Rebuilding Center, which developed a store where people can donate house parts to be sustainably re-used, and the Community Cycling Center in North Portland, which takes donated bikes that volunteers rebuild and give away or sell, as distinctively Portland endeavors.

Southeast Portland resident Mark Verna doesn't necessarily think of himself as an entrepreneur, but he's exactly the type of Portlander Nelson has in mind.

The 47-year-old flooring company estimator doesn't even think of himself as classic volunteer material.

'This is the most group oriented I've ever been in my life,' he says. 'I usually did my own thing.'

Verna's own thing is soccer. He plays and coaches.

Five years ago he took a call asking if he could take three Somali Bantu immigrant boys on the neighborhood team of ten-year-olds he coached, which included his own son. He said yes.

Next came a call asking him to help out for an afternoon neighborhood soccer event at Powell Park. He arrived and found 75 kids running around in 'total chaos.' So he pitched in.

In time, Verna found himself driving the Somali kids to practices and games, then recruiting other parents to do the same. The children lived at Kateri Apartments near Cleveland High School, along with hundreds of other immigrant and low-income families.

Verna and the other parents became more involved in the lives of the kids, watching the boys on long tournament weekends, in some cases becoming trusted by the childrens' parents in a way no one else outside their immigrant group had been.

The Somali kids, it turned out, were excellent soccer players, so Verna helped place them on high-level classic teams. And he started thinking about all the other housing projects and tight-knit immigrant neighborhoods in Portland full of immigrant kids who might be able to user soccer as their entrée to the wider world of the city.

The need, Verna says, was for an organization to connect those kids to the city's numerous neighborhood and classic teams. So three months ago he formed his own nonprofit, 4 World United Soccer Alliance, to connect children with teams and provide donated equipment and volunteer drivers so they can get to practices and games.

Verna envisions a small staff of paid administrators for the nonprofit that could start with him. But for now, he's coaching four nights a week during the summer and running those weekly soccer outings at Powell Park, for which Hands On Greater Portland sends him 10 to 15 volunteers to practice with the kids or watch younger siblings play on the nearby swing sets.

Part of the civic fabric

While Portland embraces neighborhood volunteers, some cities discourage them. Isabel Wade, who founded the nonprofit Neighborhood Parks Council in San Francisco, was astounded last year when she came to see how Portland Parks and Recreation deals with its volunteers.

Wade attended a gathering where parks and recreation staff and volunteers were sitting at tables together, exchanging ideas.

'Everybody knew each other and was part of the team,' Wade says, adding that you won't see that in San Francisco.

Wade has been fighting to get the San Francisco parks department to allow volunteers into parks. More than 15,000 volunteers help Portland Parks and Recreation maintain neighborhood parks and coach youth teams each year. In San Francisco, the city government discourages that scale of civic involvement, Wade says.

Historically, Wade says, parks employees and their unions have worried that volunteers helping maintain parks would cost them jobs. Now, she says, budget cutbacks mean there isn't enough paid staff to maintain the parks, and there isn't a group of parks volunteers to help out or rally support for parks budgets and bond measures.

'There really are different cultures in these cities,' Wade says.

Leach Botanical Garden and Crystal Springs Rhododendron Gardens were built by volunteers and are still maintained by them, says Steve Pixley, volunteer coordinator for Portland Parks and Recreation.

According to Pixley, his job - parks volunteer coordinator - doesn't exist in other West Coast cities.

Portland Parks and Recreation calculates that its volunteers contribute the equivalent of 218 full-time employees. Lost jobs have been a topic of conversation, Pixley says, but not a major one. Some of those paid positions are, like his, overseeing hordes of volunteers. For example, the 800 volunteer coaches require 12 paid, part-time gym managers and two full-time program managers.

Nathan Dietz, associate director of research and evaluation for the Corporation for National and Community Service, says that Portland has ranked second only to Minneapolis for years, but that 2010 data shows a dramatic dip on the number of volunteer hours here, from an average of 53.5 hours in 2009 to 31.6 hours in 2010.

Dietz says he can't explain the drop, which may be a statistical aberration or may represent a reaction to a big increase in Portland volunteerism that took place in 2009.

PSU's Johnson doesn't think Portland's commitment to volunteering is going away any time soon. It's become part of the city's fabric, he says, and it attracts new residents who want to be involved.

'Your social network is going to ride you through rough times better than your job,' Johnson says. 'People in Portland understand that.'