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Community Notes: The widening volunteer gap

By Mark Wicks, Charles City Community Development Director

Let me start by saying we have some phenomenal volunteers in Charles City – I mean some absolute all-stars. We have for years, which is a huge reason why the Main Street Charles City program (formerly Community Revitalization) and the Charles City Area Chamber of Commerce have been successful in the past.

In fact, did you know that since 1996 Charles City has ranked second only behind Dubuque and its “slightly” larger population in recorded volunteer hours among the 55 Main Street Iowa communities? We are ahead of cities like Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Fort Dodge and Ames.

Community Notes: The widening volunteer gap
Mark Wicks

That’s saying something about how special the people of Charles City are. These are people who make a difference in their community.

In recent years, though, that pool of volunteers who have stepped forward and said “I can help,” even in some small way, has been drying up faster than Lake Mead out west. More and more people just assume someone else will do something.

The thing is, a lot doesn’t, or can’t, happen unless enough people stand up and lend a hand. The fewer people volunteer, the more burden it also puts on those that are volunteering. Those folks are doing more than their fair share and getting overworked and burned out.

As a result, the volunteer gap widens.

If more people volunteered just a little, no one would have to volunteer a lot, and non-profit organizations could accomplish so much more! On the flip side, if that gap continues to widen and not enough new volunteers step forward, services and events that those non-profits provide – and that a lot of people take for granted – could start disappearing.

Without the volunteer-led Main Street Charles City program, the beautiful flower planters downtown could go away, as well as the street banners, clean parking lots, building preservation and improvement incentives and public improvement touches like the vintage street lights, public seating and public art. Community events like Spookwalk and Party in the Park wouldn’t happen.

A lot of the public holiday decorations downtown won’t happen, because it is volunteers who do that. There’s no one to spearhead community cleanup days or other beautification efforts. We won’t have access to state resources and funding opportunities like we do now. Projects like the community recreational trail likely don’t happen moving forward. That trail happened because five volunteers in the community stood up and made it happen through the Main Street program.

Likewise, without Chamber volunteer support there wouldn’t be a Fourth of July Celebration, Whitewater Challenge, Cabin Fever Weekend, Charles City BBQ Challenge, Bingo Nights or other special community events. Three staffers can’t run all those things by themselves. It takes volunteer support to plan, organize, raise funding and staff the events. No volunteers, no events or activities.

How valuable are volunteers? Each year the national organization Independent Sector conducts research among non-profit organizations (like the Chamber and Main Street Charles City) and calculates the value of volunteers to the non-profit sector.

As of April of this year, that value per volunteer was estimated at $29.95 an hour. Can you imagine if non-profit groups had to try and come up with that kind of money to get anything done? I’m guessing not a whole lot would, resulting in a whole lot of needed and beneficial work not happening either.

Volunteers don’t do it for the money, they don’t do it for fame – although it is a great way to make new friends and acquaintances. They do it to give something back to their community. They do it to get involved and to show they care about their town. They do it to help others less fortunate, and they do it so that things that could or should happen actually get done. Simply put, THEY ROCK!

However, we are in real danger of not having enough of them anymore to do all we want or could do. That new generation of volunteers is needed to serve on committees, on event task forces or just to lend a hand every now and then. That goes for all non-profits, such as churches, PAWS, service clubs, etc.

It doesn’t matter your age, background or skill set. If you want to make a difference, you are needed!

Interested in learning more? Give me a call at (641) 228-4234 or email


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