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

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.

Recently sworn-in Cedar Rapids City Council member Ashley Vanorny in the council chamber at City Hall in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

?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.

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.

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.

Most young volunteers can?t afford to donate, but they will show up for a cause, said Hanson, the executive director of Iowa Rivers Revival in Des Moines.

?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.