Volunteer driver programs deliver significant cost savings in Minnesota

Elderly woman getting out of a carPhoto: iStock At the request of the Minnesota Council on Transportation Access (MCOTA), researchers from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs conducted a study of the economic benefits of volunteer driver programs in the state. They used six volunteer driver programs as case studies: a county-based volunteer program, transit-system-based programs, and Faith-in-Action programs.

“The operating costs of these programs mainly include reimbursement to volunteer drivers and personnel for program coordination—customer contributions are either voluntary or designed to cover a small share of operating expenses,” says Jerry Zhao, an associate professor with the Humphrey School. “We wanted to calculate the cost savings of these programs in comparison to alternative services that would have been used if volunteer driver programs were unavailable to better understand their financial value.”

Volunteer driver programs provide flexible transportation services to meet the need of communities. They tend to be especially indispensable in rural areas where other modes of transportation are often unavailable or much more expensive. Through a network of volunteer drivers, they help senior, low-income, or other less independent groups make medical, employment, education, grocery, or pharmacy trips. However, it’s been unclear exactly what—if any—hard cost savings they provide.

Researchers began by interviewing selected providers that use volunteer drivers and reviewing their operation and financial data. The programs studied were Volunteer Services of Carlton County, Central Community Transit (CCT), United Community Action Partnership, SEMCAC (Southeastern Minnesota Community Action Council), Faith in Action for Cass County, and Faith in Action in Red Wing.

These case studies showed that volunteer driver services are often provided through community-based transit programs, including Community Action Partnerships established under the Federal Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, and Faith in Action organizations, which are a network of interfaith, volunteer caregiving service providers.

Finally, researchers calculated the financial benefit of these six programs compared to available alternative transportation services such as private provider or taxi services. “In addition to the cost savings volunteer driver programs provide for federal and state human services programs, they offer significant savings for their users,” Zhao says. “On average, we found that for each round-trip, volunteer driver services can save from $18 to $185 depending on trip length and the type of alternative services available in the area. The annual savings of the six programs we studied in Minnesota range from about $75,000 to as much as $1,480,000.”

The study builds on a 2016 survey that examined the benefits and barriers to volunteer driver programs in Minnesota. 

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