I have encountered the phrase “No Children Allowed” frequently since starting this blog. Finding volunteer opportunities for toddlers and preschoolers is no easy task. Most organizations have minimum age requirements for volunteers and there are very few that will allow young children to come to their facility to volunteer. Once your children are school age, more opportunities begin to open up, especially opportunities that relate to your children’s activities such as coaching and scout leadership, but these do not necessarily allow for your children to volunteer too. I am sure the first word most non-profit organizations think when they consider child-friendly volunteer opportunities is Trouble, with a capital T. The children will just be distraction. They are not capable of the basic tasks that the organization needs. It will be quicker to just have our staff or adult volunteers complete the projects. In many ways, these points are valid. But, if organizations were to think about the long term benefits of incorporating opportunities for children to volunteer, I think there might be shift towards more abundant “family friendly” opportunities.
The two most important benefits that come to mind are an expanded volunteer pool and building a loyalty among your volunteer corp. When an organization offers opportunities to families, the volunteer pool automatically expands. As a stay-at-home mom, I would love to volunteer more often than I do. But, it is not feasible for me to hire a babysitter to achieve this goal. Many of my friends were active volunteers prior to having children, but have found it nearly impossible to maintain their volunteer relationships after having children, especially during toddler and preschool years. I am busy as a stay-at-home mom, but I definitely have time to give, just not much kid-free time. Family-friendly volunteer opportunities would be an ideal way for me to actively volunteer again.
Additionally, by implementing family-friendly volunteer opportunities, organizations would be introducing a whole new generation to volunteerism and community involvement, which leads to point number two. Instilling a love of and commitment to service at a young age benefits the non-profits they volunteer with and society as a whole. I recently read a report by Child Trends on civic engagement among teens. Their research has shown that volunteerism in adolescence is linked with positive outcomes during teen and adult years. Teens who volunteer are less likely to become pregnant or use drugs and more likely to be active volunteers and citizens as adults – that’s good news for non-profits! The research has also shown that children are influenced by the actions of their parents – parents who volunteer are more likely to have children who volunteer. I think it is fair to say that if you engage younger children in positive activities like volunteering, they, too, will show the same positive outcomes. And, even if it is not fair, I would love to hear somebody try to argue against the benefits of kids volunteering.
From the non-profit perspective it is essential that a true need be met by volunteer activities. Most non-profits, especially smaller ones, operate pretty leanly and managing volunteers can be challenging if you don’t have a staff person dedicated to it. I think it is time to start thinking creatively about how to engage families and children in volunteering. Does your organization provide bag lunches to homeless individuals? Start a program that encourages children to decorate paper bags in which to serve the lunches. Are programs for elderly individuals your focus? Establish an intergenerational program to connect your clientele and local children – have them draw pictures, write letters, or visit your site. Do you operate an animal shelter? Allow families to bake homemade dog biscuits for your pooches or craft toys for your cats. If your group is unsure of how to involve families, consider starting a “Family Board” consisting of parents and children who are interested in working with your organization. Allow them to come up with ideas to present to your staff.
Children and their families are a largely untapped source of unbridled creativity and endless energy. Let’s get them involved in changing the world!