Iowa Ideas 2018
September 20 - 21 | Cedar Rapids

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Investing in the future: Five leaders under 35 discuss how to engage younger Iowans

"Just show up"

    Composite image: Iowans under 35 who have stepped into community leadership roles weigh in on the state's future. (Photos: Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
    Regional Development
    Apr 4, 2018 at 8:47 am

    Ashley Vanorny’s path to community service started with the Girl Scouts.

    Stacey Walker, Molly Hanson and Ryan Bruner grew up in families where public service and helping others was second nature.

    Simeon Talley worked for a presidential campaign in Iowa, but stayed to build communities in the state’s art and political worlds.

    All are under 35, and each has made volunteering, government service, leading not-for-profits and fostering communities part of their lives. As Iowa faces an aging population, economic and political shifts, slow population growth, and changes in its philanthropic base, the state will need more like them to chart its new course.

     

    “We always need the next generation — which would be millennials right now — investing in our future,” said Vanorny, a recently elected Cedar Rapids City Council member.

    SEEING A ‘DIRECT IMPACT’

    By some metrics, younger Iowans are less likely to volunteer or be civically engaged.

    • Only about 27 percent of millennials in Iowa volunteered in 2015, compared with 37 percent and 34 percent of Gen Xers and baby boomers, respectively, according to data from the Corporation for National and Community Service.

    • Nationwide, only 17 percent of not-for-profit board members were under 40, compared with 67 percent who were between 40 and 64 years old, according to a 2017 report from BoardSource.

    • Voter turnout also is historically lower among younger voters than older ones.

    But there’s a reasonable explanation for those lower rates. Those commitments take time, time younger residents use to finish school, build careers or start families.

    Instead, younger Iowans may dedicate themselves to one-off activities that have personal meaning, such as charity runs, said Les Garner, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.

     

    “They are typically all involved in things that fit the time constraints they face and are personally meaningful and typically where they can see a direct impact of the activity they pursue,” he said.

    Hanson, the executive director of Iowa Rivers Revival in Des Moines, said organizations such as hers have to reach out to young people and show them the value of serving on a board.

    “That is then the challenge fired back to us: How do we make what we do attractive and interesting and worthwhile?” said Hanson, whose organization advocates for protecting Iowa’s rivers and streams.

    Younger Iowans also may engage with their communities in non-traditional ways. They may turn to social media or grass-roots organizations, for example, instead of serving with established not-for-profits or local government.

    “What I’ve found is that, particularly among younger folks, lots of people where they feel like they’ve been locked out or neglected or not spoken to and addressed, they’re creating their own things that speak to a specific group of people,” said Talley, a co-founder of the Iowa Political Party and RAD Inc. in Iowa City.

    Those untraditional forms of engagement, combined with economic changes, mean Iowa’s not-for-profits will have to adjust how they recruit volunteers and dollars.

    “My old, traditional donors still like me to send them a letter in the mail. As we start to really try and tap into the younger community, that’s not obviously the best way to work,” Hanson said.

     

    Zachary Mannheimer, principal community planner with McClure Engineering, said younger Iowans “want to get their hands dirty” rather than work from a boardroom. Mannheimer founded the Des Moines Social Club, a not-for-profit entertainment venue that hosts community events, and, with McClure, tours rural towns to help them with community and economic development.

    “While serving on boards may still be a thing, many younger people are more engaged in project-based work with or without nonprofits to improve their communities,” he said in an email.

    For Iowa Rivers Revival, that meant organizing creek cleanups, meetups and a presentation on how to talk to legislators. Walker and Talley have started a podcast, fashion shows and community spaces as outlets.

    ‘CREATING FUTURE CHAMPIONS’

    Most young volunteers can’t afford to donate, but they will show up for a cause, Hanson said.

    “I think, ultimately, that is the first step to creating future champions, is to get them to show up for you,” she said.

    Vanorny, Bruner, Talley and Walker all noted that community organizations need to be open to a diverse set of Iowans. Without diversity, they said, conversations won’t be effective.

    “The more that we look to shut out others’ opinions and not hold their human experience as something that’s relevant, it just leads us down a path of sticking to your side, not being willing to listen,” said Bruner, the president of Young Professionals Connection, a networking organization for emerging leaders in Des Moines.

     

    The University of Iowa has put a focus on educating students about philanthropy, with the hope that they’ll carry those lessons on as they get older, said Lynette Marshall, president and chief executive officer of the university’s Center for Advancement.

    For example, the university hosts a talk with an Iowa philanthropist each year, has an undergraduate academic certificate in fundraising and philanthropy communications, and the Center has fellowship programs for students interested in careers in philanthropy.

    “Fundamentally, the bottom line hope that I have as we educate these students is that when they go out and get their first job or fifth job and they’re in their communities is that they’re supportive of (organizations and causes) and they’re engaged in not only volunteerism, but philanthropy,” Marshall said.

    Meanwhile, Mannheimer said organizations that rely on charitable giving need to diversify their revenue as they won’t always be able to rely on major backers to keep them afloat. Instead, they’ll have to identify new businesses and donors that can give money, even if in smaller amounts, and expand programs that serve more than their current niche, Mannheimer said.

    “It probably won’t be as dramatic as suddenly all of these gifts are going to go away in one fell swoop, but these organizations have to figure how to increase revenue, which in turn, I believe, also will lead to greater audience involvement and getting better diversity into these organizations,” Mannheimer said.

     

    ‘You don’t have to be supervolunteer’

    Five young Iowans in the state offer their advice on how the Iowa’s younger generations can get involved in their communities:

    Ryan Bruner, 28: “You don’t have to come prepared with everything under the sun, just show up, be open and if you don’t know anybody, strike up some type of conversation.”

    Simeon Talley, 33: “Just show up. You have to take the initiative and instigate this stuff yourself. That community is welcoming enough that you’ll be able to plug in.”

    Ashley Vanorny, 32: “Whatever their passion is, there typically is a group that’s already engaged in it. Just join in and start making some time and ask ‘how can I help’ and get some confidence to share your ideas.”

    Stacey Walker, 30: “Figure out those things that you care most about or those challenges you want to work most to address, or those problems that keep you up at night identify those things and then work at them.”

    Molly Hanson, 31: “You don’t have to be Supervolunteer. Just show up once and bring a friend so you don’t have to go by yourself. ... So many of us are interested in so many things, and we really don’t know until we try it if we like it.”

     

    -- Comments: (319) 398-8366; matthew.patane@thegazette.com

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