*Reposted with permission of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, http://philanthropy.com*
By Jennifer C. Berkshire
When Heather Jack went looking for a charity where she and her then 5-year-old daughter might volunteer together, she didn’t find many takers. While plenty of nonprofit organizations were eager for Ms. Jack’s help, few showed any interest in accommodating a very young volunteer.
Her frustration at the experience prompted Ms. Jack to start the Volunteer Family, a nonprofit network in Boston that helps families identify charities where they might give time—together. The online service currently lists 30,000 such opportunities in 40 states.
“Parents really want to teach their kids to give back,” says Ms. Jack. “My goal was to make it easier for them to find meaningful volunteer opportunities for the whole family.”
A growing number of charities are responding to the emerging demand for family-friendly volunteering. Nonprofit leaders note that parents today often grew up volunteering—and want their children to have that same experience.
“The parents understand that volunteering puts you on a path to service,” says Kathy Saulitis, interim associate executive director of GenerationOn, in New York, the new youth-service division of the Points of Light Institute.
And with parents and kids alike at the mercy of busy schedules, allowing families to volunteer together provides them with something that’s often missing from their hectic lives: time spent together. “Offering families a way to share a meaningful experience is a real draw,” says Ms. Saulitis.
Even very small children help with landscaping and other safe tasks involved in creating the charity KaBoom’s playgrounds across the country.
For charities still feeling the recession’s pinch, the trend toward family volunteering can mean a new pool of potential helpers. But providing opportunities for these intergenerational volunteers—and getting the most out of their service—takes work. Following are some tips from charity leaders on how to create chances for families to give their time together:
Take an incremental approach. When Judy Musa began to offer family volunteering opportunities at the German School of Monmouth County, she admits that her initial expectations may have been too high. “There was a lot of trial and error involved,” says Ms. Musa, who oversees volunteers for the German-language private school in Red Bank, N.J. “In order to get people to commit to anything, you have to start small and let people pick and choose things that fit into their schedules.”
Ms. Musa offers volunteering opportunities in increments as brief as an hour, then asks families to commit to multiple hours throughout the year. And all of those hours add up. “Whether it’s helping teachers in the classroom or setting up for Oktoberfest, we’re getting the work done,” she says.
At Heading Home, a charity in Cambridge, Mass., that finds housing for homeless families, staff members have tried to break down the entire process of moving into steps.
“Just as moving can seem overwhelming, we found that our volunteers felt overwhelmed by what we were asking them to do,” says Wendy Jacobs, the group’s chief development officer.
Today families that volunteer together can choose from a menu of options, including donating a household item for the new home, outfitting whole rooms, or holding a donation drive at their churches or schools to raise money for the move. The step-by-step approach has smoothed out the group’s moving days, says Ms. Jacobs, and broadened Heading Home’s appeal to volunteers.
Offer age-appropriate opportunities. Many charities—including food pantries, homeless shelters, animal shelters, and hospitals—have strict age limits that prevent the youngest volunteers from providing direct help. “Those restrictions exist for a reason,” says Ms. Jack. “There are a lot of places where kids don’t belong.” But even charities with age restrictions can still involve volunteers of all ages. The key, she says, is a creative approach: “Maybe kids can’t work at the animal shelter, but they can get together with their friends to make cat toys.”
KaBoom, a charity with headquarters in Washington that builds playgrounds across the country, makes a point of recruiting family volunteers to its projects. But there’s a catch, says Carrie Ellis, director of project management. Because the playgrounds-in-progress are considered live construction sites, children below the age of 15 must be kept at a safe distance on “build day.”
Still, KaBoom makes sure that young volunteers have a role to play throughout the process. Children are often involved in planning and designing the playgrounds, helping with landscaping, even painting murals that reflect some aspect of the local culture.
“We try to provide a long list of age-appropriate activities for kids so that they’ll feel that sense of involvement but stay safe at the same time,” says Ms. Ellis.
Recruit volunteers where families congregate. When Lynda Schueler goes in search of helping hands for the homelessness organization she runs near Chicago, she heads straight for the churches.
“Churches are filled with families who are looking to participate in something meaningful,” says Ms. Schueler, executive director of West Suburban Pads. Every weeknight, one of 11 congregations in Chicago’s Oak Park suburb opens its doors to the homeless men, women, and children served by the charity.
The effort relies on a rotating cast of more than 1,000 volunteers, including families that volunteer together, says Ms. Schueler. Typically families will purchase ingredients, prepare meals at home, then bring the food to the church where it is served to the homeless guests restaurant-style.
“The families are helping to provide an essential service, and we’re creating an ethic of volunteering at the same time,” says Ms. Schueler.
Let young volunteers serve as spokespeople The Diabetes Research Institute Foundation, in Hollywood, Fla., increasingly calls on young volunteers who suffer from the disease to serve as spokespeople for the charity. “We’re asking kids to talk about an issue that’s important to them,” says Tom Karlya, a vice president of the organization who came up with the idea for what the charity calls Diabetes Diplomats.
The network, started last February, now boasts 200 young volunteers, who range from kindergarten to high school age. In addition to talking to their classmates and friends about diabetes, the diplomats have also proved to be very effective fund raisers, says Mr. Karlya, whose children have diabetes. “Kids are hearing from someone they know about this disease. They go home and they want to help because there’s a face on the cause.”
Don’t count out teenagers. A growing number of high schools across the country now require students to fulfill community-service hours to graduate. That’s a potential gold mine of volunteer labor, says Emma Bonanomi, associate director of patient outreach and services for the Pulmonary Hypertension Association in Silver Spring, Md. When the charity created a volunteer night to help staff members with administrative tasks, the organization approached the local high school.
“Now they know about us,” says Ms. Bonanomi. “If you make it easy for teens to volunteer and fulfill their community-service hours, the program will quickly become self-sustaining.”
Until three years ago, the Ronald McDonald House of Dallas didn’t allow anyone under age 18 to volunteer unless a parent came along. That’s changed thanks to the efforts of a high-school student who convinced the charity to create a “board” for teenagers—essentially a group of teens who volunteer at the charity.
“High-school students can now apply to be part of the board, and we get to know them really well,” says Emilie Peloubet, the charity’s volunteer coordinator. Sixty-five teenagers now serve on the board, and every week groups of up to 10 adolescents come to the house, which provides lodging to families with children undergoing medical treatment.
The teenage volunteers prepare meals under the supervision of an adult and provide some much-needed entertainment for family members staying in the house. While Ms. Peloubet notes that involving adolescents can mean a lot of staff coordination—their schedules change constantly, for example—she thinks that the payoff is well worth the investment.
“They’re a great group,” she says. “Hopefully they’ll end up on a big board someday and remember the connection they had with us.”