How and Why to Make Volunteering a Family Affair

Guest post by Beth Steinhorn, JFFixler Group

A mother and daughter volunteer together with the Sacramento Tree Foundation.

A mother and daughter volunteer together with the Sacramento Tree Foundation.

Whether you represent a food pantry, youth program, senior center, theater, or other organization or agency, families are likely a key constituent of yours. They may be welcomed as members, program attendees, visitors, or clients. They may be cultivated as donors or participants. Rarely, however, do families easily and readily find ways to volunteer at these organizations – to volunteer together.

Meanwhile, families are as busy as they have ever been and finding time together is a priority. Parents are seeking to spend meaningful family time together, to live out the values they want to instill in their children, and to make a positive difference in their community. In response, many organizations are beginning to actively engage families as volunteers, whether for a one-time event or in an ongoing relationship. Many different factors have inspired that new commitment to engaging families.

Last year, our firm shared a case study about one family volunteering program at the Aquarium of the Pacific. That institution was inspired, in part, by the powerful connection between young visitors and young volunteers. Sean Devereaux, the Manager of Volunteer Services, described the interaction between an 8-year old volunteer and a visitor of similar age:

“The interaction was truly magical. The young visitor was able to get so much more depth of knowledge than if he had interacted with an adult because the kids spoke to each other in a common language. It was remarkable. I wasn’t the only one who was noticing that magic. The Aquarium as a whole recognized the value of peer-to-peer learning. So we began marketing family volunteering as a valuable and integral program for our volunteer corps.”

Organizations can harness the energy of families working together, and, as seen in the “magic” observed at that aquarium, the benefits add up to far more than just the hours contributed by the family volunteers. Everyone benefits – the volunteers, the organization, the visitors or clients, and even the community-at-large.

When organizational leaders are strategic and careful about the roles they create for family volunteers, they can expect tangible contributions from family members of all ages. Creating meaningful and appropriate roles takes time, but is possible. In their book, Doing Good Together, Jenny Friedman and Jolene Roehlkepartain share seven “keys” to a successful family service project. They are:

  1. Purpose; impact on a real need
  2. Simplicity
  3. Creativity
  4. Intergenerational appeal
  5. Relationship building
  6. Reflection
  7. A next step

This list is a great starting point to discuss what makes family volunteering effective for all involved. Discuss what each of those seven key elements means to you and your constituents and what they might “look like” at your organization.

There are meaningful roles for families at most organizations. The challenge is to surface them. Here are a few suggestions to get the ideas flowing:

Social Service Agencies: Families can organize food drives, unload and shelve donations to a pantry, raise funds by organizing family-friendly events, and host information sessions at their homes or schools to educate others about the pressing needs in their own communities.

Community Centers: Families can help with facilities projects like building or painting playground meals to seniors, tutor children, or brainstorm, plan, and run events to bring new members to the Center.

Farms and Community Supported Agriculture: Families can tend crops and harvest food to be donated to a local food pantry, thus helping the environment, learning new skills, learning about issues related to hunger, and feeding the hungry all at the same time.

Museums and Cultural Organizations: Families can serve as tour guides, interpreters, greeters, or program ushers.

These are just a few examples of successful family-friendly volunteer roles. What can families do for your organization?

To learn more about family volunteering, join guest blogger Beth Steinhorn, JFFixler Group President, for a free webinar at September 3. Click here to register!

Beth Steinhorn is a nationally recognized leader, writer, and innovator in volunteer engagement and nonprofit management. As President of JFFixler Group, she leads consultations, facilitates workshops, directs research, presents keynote addresses, and publishes blogs and articles. Throughout her 25+ year career with nonprofit organizations, Beth has worked to help organizations and their leadership to achieve their missions through strategic and innovative engagement.

What I Learned from Volunteering

Guest post by Dylan Manderlink

Dylan Manderlink shares what she learned volunteering - and how nonprofits can and should increase outreach to young people.

Dylan volunteering in Boston, Mass.

This post should really be called: “How I learned more about my community and humanity once I stepped outside my college classroom.” You see, going to college in the heart of a city has an abundance of advantages, and many students are quick to take a big gulp of all the opportunities presented by the fast-paced, busy, and unique city landscape.

While internship opportunities, professional networking events for soon-to-be post grads, company hosted events at local restaurants and bars, and higher education possibilities are readily available and most likely taken advantage of by eager 20-somethings, taking time to volunteer at the many nonprofit social/environmental justice organizations, homeless shelters, advocacy centers, philanthropic fundraisers, local schools and child care facilities that complete the city of Boston are not always at the forefront of young people’s minds while navigating through their college experiences.

But, with a little push from student organizations, local nonprofits and passionate individuals, volunteerism and community change can start to take a front seat and become not just an opportunity, but also a priority in the lives of young people.

Volunteerism, civic engagement and advocacy are the driving forces for creating change and making a positive impact in your community and society at large. While gaining internship and job experience can lead to community impact and social change, it’s important for us to remember that before we start advocating for change and informing others about issues we care about, we need to fully understand the complexity and depth of the social, environmental, or economic issue we are passionate about.

Not only do we need to understand the ‘issue’ or ‘societal problem’ that many people face and are impacted by every day, but we need to meet and work alongside those whose daily realities are shaped by injustices, while not creating any divides or barriers in the process. Everyday people are affected by the issues that organizations fight for or against, and once we realize how people-centered things like advocacy, outreach and service are, I believe young people will realize their call to action and their potential in their local landscapes to really affect change.

My Experience

How can nonprofits appeal to more young people in order to get them more involved in community issues?

Dylan volunteering in Boston, Mass.

For example: Recently I had a very unique volunteer gig. A few times a semester I would take the Red Line to Quincy to volunteer at the Prison Book Program, where I would read letters from incarcerated individuals from all over the country and find 2-3 books that match their interests and reading criteria. Opening each letter and hearing people’s stories reminded me of the harsh realities of our world today, and the difficulty many people face in preserving their human dignity and self-worth.

Whether guilty of crimes or innocent, our incarceration system is an issue that many activists rally around in terms of its success and promise in correcting and rehabilitating criminal behavior. So, to read letters and hear the voices of those who are living on the marginalized edges of our society, but who rarely have a voice in the issue that’s being nationally rallied around, is an uncommon circumstance that should be noted and have more attention and action drawn to. Their desire to educate themselves within the confines of a prison wall is real and heard by those of us who take time to spend their weekday evenings in the bottom of a church basement, sorting through donated books, and reading literary wish-lists of those who are incarcerated.

Another meaningful experience that sticks out to me is when I regularly volunteered at a children’s homeless shelter in Roxbury, Mass. for two years, and was reminded of the fact that the statistics we hear every day about homelessness are real people – not just numbers. Every child I played alongside, made a puzzle with, and created art work for, reminded me that the largest percentage of people who are homeless is in fact, not the men people see on the street who are waiting in line for the soup kitchen, but families: Mothers, children of all ages, infants, and fathers.

I was reminded that every human and every family deserves a place to call a home, a place to grow up, and a place to feel safe and comfortable. Helping the shelter to provide an afternoon of safety, comfort, respect, and joy for children who don’t have a home or much stability was a small but meaningful contribution to a much greater familial and societal obstacle.

What I Learned

I learned from my volunteer experiences in Boston that people are not powerless; in fact, we have a great deal of power and potential, despite sometimes being told we may not have any because of the zip code we were born in, economic status, family life, sexual orientation, or employment status. Through the volunteering I made as a priority and a cornerstone of my life in college, I learned how empowering it is to realize how much agency you have in your own life and how beautiful it is to share that with others in hopes of them discovering it themselves.

I learned how giving human beings are, even when they don’t have much to give. I learned how one of the biggest equalizers of our society is storytelling and the sharing of self. We open countless doors of understanding, compassion, education, and empathy when we let the chaos and speed of the cityscape subside, and take time to actively listen and communicate with our community members. Our community is a diverse fabric of human beings, and we all have a voice in enacting change, improving the lives of our neighbors, and promoting a more just and verdant world.

I learned that local nonprofit organizations have the potential to amplify their outreach to colleges, and young people in general, through matching passions with skills. You as organizations need to purposefully identify for us why promoting service and civic engagement is not only important, but necessary if we want to improve our lives, the lives of others, and the dilemmas and misfortunes our world faces every day.

The relationship between young people and nonprofits can be the start of a significant change in our community, and should be a reciprocal and powerful educational experience. An open-minded and encouraging flow of communication between organizations and community members can be the launchpad for the social and environmental change organizations talk about and try for every day. Together, we can make change – not just a semblance of idealism, but reality, as well.

How does your organization engage with college students and young adults? Share what you’ve learned in the comments!

Dylan Manderlink is a recent graduate of Emerson College in Boston, Mass., who with a self-designed major, Investigative Theatre for Social Change. She is now a Teach for America corps member, teaching high school in rural Arkansas. She is passionate about working in the nonprofit sector and providing educational opportunities for students to creatively inform themselves and others about social justice, community change and human rights.

A First-Hand Perspective about Students, Nonprofits and Volunteering

Guest post by Austin Hong.

A First-Hand Perspective about Students, Nonprofits and VolunteeringHello there!

My name is Austin Hong. I am 20 years old, born and raised in Los Angeles, Calif. I’m a rising junior at Boston College, studying finance and computer science, and I think I have some advice for you.

Since high school I’ve developed quite a resume of service activities. Between 2010 and now, I’ve had extensive involvement with nonprofit organizations, the most renowned being Operation Smile. I’ve served on two international service trips in Costa Rica and South Korea, individually spent over 400 hours serving an elementary school in East Boston, as well as served a number of other local organizations and events.

A significant portion of my past six years can be largely described by my passion to serve others, and it’s a passion and joy that many students and young adults my age should experience. The advice and plea I have for those of you involved in the nonprofit industry is to create an increased focus and higher emphasis on incorporating students and student chapters into achieving the goals of your organizations.

Why Student Chapters?

Students are passionate and filled with energy. I believe that high school is the starting point to several years of an individual’s path towards self-discovery. As mystical as that might sound, it is definitely something that will benefit your organization. A high school student will grip whatever interests them and drive forward with it, and for many in my generation, the interest that we have gripped has been our desire to give back to the local and global communities.

My first experience with any sort of nonprofit organization was through my older brother, who was the first to introduce me to Operation Smile. I was instantly compelled to get involved. I’m not sure if it was the fact that I revered him and wanted to mimic everything that he did, or that his personal testimony regarding his experience with the organization and its cause ignited in me a passion to also make a difference. Regardless of the reason, as soon as I was exposed to Operation Smile, I drove forward with it.

Students Need to Volunteer

Not only are your organizations in need of students, students are just as equally in need of your organizations. When a student connects with a nonprofit’s cause, it plants a seed in them that only grows over time. The seed grows in the student and creates values in him or her that are hard to come by anywhere else at that age of their life. The spread of activism and volunteerism are critical in creating a holistic person, and a set of morals. The earlier these morals are set, the longer they have to mature and become ingrained in the student.

Volunteerism will not just create a set of values in a student, but it will also give him or her a rare opportunity to be a leader. Leadership is not entirely impossible to come by within the academic setting; however the unique aspect of leadership within a student chapter is what makes it so attractive.

To put into perspective the effects of a single student and student chapters, the year after my discussion with my older brother, I founded an Operation Smile student chapter at my high school. The year after that, I decided to expand my efforts and rallied twelve existing student chapters in my local area to form what is now known as the Operation Smile Southern California Region. Each student chapter continued their efforts individually; however, as a region, we hosted large-scale awareness events and fundraisers to have a greater impact on our communities and the suffering men, women, and children for whom we served.

By my third year as the president of my student chapter and region, I had helped to provide over 6,000 volunteer hours, raised over $22,000, and created student chapters in six different high schools. I don’t want you to confuse these claims as an attempt to boost my ego, rather I wanted to show you the tangible results of a single driven student. To this day, my high school’s student chapter and the Southern California Region continue to thrive and expand, even without my involvement.

Students should not be pressured, that is to say that a nonprofit’s cause should not be forced down the throat of a high school freshman. Rather, by providing the proper resources and attention to allow a student to be exposed to an organization, and providing the support to continue their interests, engaging students can prove to be an extremely high-yielding investment for any nonprofit organization.

Austin Hong was raised in Los Angeles, California before attending Boston College, where he studies Finance. Currently he is working for a legal management consulting firm in the Beacon Hill area of Boston, Mass.

Summer + Teens + Volunteering = A Combination Not to Be Ignored

Teen volunteers with the Sacramento Tree Foundation.

Teen volunteers with the Sacramento Tree Foundation.

Summer is here! For many of us this means sun, smiles, and…teenagers with nothing to do. Fortunately, as nonprofit organizations, we’re always in need of more help!

And lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of buzz about how great it is to get teens involved in volunteering. So don’t miss this chance to engage teen volunteers! They are energetic, passionate about what they care about, and they also have a lot of time on their hands right now…

Here’s a round-up of some news articles about teens and volunteering:

Post teen-friendly opportunities on VolunteerMatch.org right now!

The Pros and Cons of Engaging Young Volunteers

What are the pros and cons of engaging young volunteers?Does your nonprofit organization work with high school-age volunteers? What about even younger kids? For some groups, younger volunteers are a great fit, while for others they might create too much additional work and complication.

We thought we’d kick off this debate by listing some of the pros and cons of engaging young volunteers in nonprofit work. Take a look, let us know what you think, and join the debate here, on LinkedIn or on Facebook!

Pros of Engaging Young Volunteers

Cons of Engaging Young Volunteers

They are really passionate about the causes they care about. With school and extra-curricular activities, their availability may be limited.
They are very socially oriented – so they’ll bring their friends! There is a risk their social natures might distract them from the work at hand as they spend time with their friends.
Their youthful energy can be contagious, infusing existing supporters with new “oomph.” Since they can’t drive, they probably have a curfew and they might need a chaperone, they won’t have as flexible a schedule or as much freedom to move around as an adult volunteer.
The young ones who need chaperones will bring their parents along, increasing your community of adult supporters, as well. Their lives are changing very quickly, and it might be tough for them to commit long term to helping out.
If you get the connected in a meaningful way now, you can engage them for the long haul and turn them into super-volunteers, champions and donors as they get older.

Obviously this list will be a little different for each organization. What do YOU think – what are the pros and cons of engaging young volunteers?

(Photo from Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco.)