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Local volunteer groups combine service with social to target millennials

It's shortly after 1 p.m. on a Saturday in Druid Hill Park. Several dozen young people, many decked out in trim-fitting athletic gear, gather under a pavilion.

A plastic storage bin is stocked with cans of Miller Lite and Bud Light. Two grills are smoking burgers and hot dogs. Justin Timberlake's song "Mirrors" mixes with picnic table chatter as a Frisbee zings back and forth during a game of Polish horseshoes.

These people have all volunteered to have a good time.

Since last February, Volunteering Untapped has held a volunteering event every month with a nonprofit, immediately followed by drinks and networking. An hour earlier this day, VU participants were cutting back Druid Hill Park's swaths of tree-killing vines, planting flowers and mulching young trees.

Volunteering Untapped's combination of service and social is representative of a growing trend: altruistic organizations targeting the millennial generation. And it's taking hold in Baltimore.

"Organizations like this offer a nice blend of the social club and network, plus 'We're doing good,'" says Emily Yu, the vice president of marketing and partnerships at the Case Foundation, a charity that seeks to address social challenges. The Washington, D.C.-based foundation funds the annual Millennial Impact Report, which studies millennial participation in causes. This year's report indicates that millennials favor performing smaller actions before they'll fully commit to a cause.

The 2014 study also found that millennials "support issues rather than organizations" and that they "engage with causes to help other people, not institutions." About 88 percent of respondents donated to a nonprofit in 2013 (the most common donation: $100-$500).

Perhaps most telling: the report found that most respondents preferred volunteering with peers, especially those they work with. And the main motivators for millennials getting involved with a cause: "passion" and a way to "meet people."

That passion and networking is certainly on display at Druid Hill Park. Off to the side of the pavilion, a handful of women had spent the past two hours collecting trash — from broken glass and straws to cast-off condoms and one large, lonely pair of lacy underwear. It's their first time coming to a Volunteering Untapped event, but not their first volunteering. Now they're chatting and sipping wine from plastic cups.

"There was an overwhelming amount of trash in just the distance that we went," says 31-year-old Teresa Rogers, a business development officer at SunTrust Bank.

So, are these people Baltimore's next generation of altruistic leaders? Or are they just here for the beer?

Seth Franz couldn't care less about those questions. "This is an if-you-build-it-they-will-come thing," says

Volunteering Untapped's founder, who hops from person to person, networking and plugging the group's next event in October.

A funny, energetic 30-year-old who grew up in Baltimore, Franz is a national real estate manager at Kiddie Academy, a child care company. He has heard stereotypes about millennials: They're entitled, too self-absorbed with technology and their lives to volunteer. Indeed, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study showed that 2013 volunteer rates were lowest among 20- to 24-year-olds (18.5 percent). However, volunteer rates were low across the board.

Franz wants volunteering to be fulfilling — and fun. And more than anything else, he wants to turn commitment-phobe millennials into steadfast volunteers.

"[Volunteering Untapped] was not to get them out volunteering once a month," Franz clarifies. "It was to plant the seed. … That's the idea of the program — to connect people with their passions and let it take over. They will go from volunteering one day to, 'Oh, I'll sit on the committee for that charity.' And then the next day they're the committee chair for the charity golf tournament, and then they're on the board a couple of years later."

Hours earlier, 23-year-old Ashley Quang wasn't thinking much about committees or boards. The digital strategist at Zest Social Media Solutions was crouched, digging holes to make room for native plants like switchgrass. It was her first time volunteering at a Volunteering Untapped event. Quang said that millennial volunteers are probably different from volunteers of previous generations.

"I'd say millennials care more about the purpose," says Quang.

That's in keeping with what the Millennial Impact Report found. And it serves Franz's Volunteering Untapped perfectly. The group, run on a shoestring budget, recently received a grant from Baltimore Corps — a new nonprofit that aims to place talented people with organizations that prioritize social good — but Franz said he continues to search for funding.

The idea for Volunteering Untapped came about after Franz participated in the Business Volunteers Maryland's GIVE program, which raises awareness among young professionals about volunteering and community issues.

"Young people also want to meet people with similar passions," said Sarah Long, the manager of civic engagement programs at Business Volunteers Maryland. "GIVE allows for these things to happen through its learning seminars, class projects and cohort experience."

And competition among nonprofits for donations of time or money has grown. The Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, found that in 2011 there were more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States. That means millennials who want to volunteer can be choosy.

"Young people grew up in a world where there are a lot of organizations serving every cause, so they're naturally more selective about the causes they give to," said 31-year-old Ryan Carroll, a member of Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baltimore's young professionals committee.

After roughly four years of existence, Boys Hope Girls Hope, which mentors underserved and at-risk youth, formalized its young professionals group last June. It now boasts a core group of 15 who help the organization nurture young students in a residential environment. The group's volunteers can do different things. For instance, if they're not interested in mentoring one of the nonprofit's students, they can lend their skills in a strategic area like marketing.

Volunteering Untapped and BHGH aren't the only local organizations tailoring volunteer experiences to millennials.

"With young professionals, the social networking is a huge thing," said 26-year-old Lauren Kohr, the development and community relations manager at the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Baltimore.

Baltimore's Ronald McDonald House started a young professionals volunteer group called the Red Shoe Crew in 2011. Along with tasks like cooking dinners and hosting activities for families staying at the house, they also organize happy hour fundraisers and an annual barbecue, as well as coordinate the organization's 5K race.

Nonprofits are eager to "grow" friends to both serve as well as donate, said Sarah Jane Rehnborg, the interim director at the University of Texas' RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service and an expert in volunteerism and managing nonprofits. It's not just the nonprofits that benefit, however.

"Millennials are still in many cases younger, unattached, looking for connections, looking for relationships and people they share interests with," said Rehnborg. "This is great way to learn about the community, to serve, to meet friends, to have something that's more meaningful in their social life than just bar hopping. Or even searching on dating sites."

But although the motivations of those volunteering may vary, it doesn't take long for the Volunteering Untapped participants to find a common thread. Rogers, one of the morning's garbage collectors, breaks away from the gathering to add something she and the rest of her friends want to make certain is not overlooked.

"We all live in the city," Rogers says quietly. "So we notice the problems. We see it."

Volunteering Untapped

For more information on VU, go to volunteeringuntapped.com. The group is also accessible through facebook.com/volunteeringuntapped, twitter.com/untappedtweets and instagram.com/volunteeringuntapped.

The group will hold two events on Oct. 11. One, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Monarch Academy School (2525 Kirk Ave.), is a project for Playworks with 35 volunteers improving a new playground area. The other, held at the same time, involves 10 volunteers working with children at the Kennedy Krieger Institute (801 N. Broadway). Volunteers from both events will meet at the Admiral's Cup (1647 Thames St.) for post-service drink specials.

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