Making Room for Families in Your Volunteer Program

Family Volunteer DayThe season for giving is upon us. On November 21, families all across the nation will observe Family Volunteer Day, a day to kick off the season of giving back.

In theory, combining family time with community service is a great idea. Yet often for volunteer managers it’s a logistical nightmare. Creating opportunities for a group can be challenging and made only more daunting if that group has mixed ages and interests.

Before you decide to turn families away from your program this holiday season, here are a few tips to make room for them:

Create projects that can be done by those with a variety of skill levels, especially kids.
Want to identify your current friends on MySpace or your Twitter followers? This is a great opportunity for teens to use their social networking skills, and for parents to better understand your mission and maybe even learn something from their children.

Remember,  jobs that are intuitive for adults might not be for children or teens. Office work isn’t something children are familiar with and what’s obvious to adults might be foreign and confusing to kids. To help with this, make sure project steps are well defined. I often talk about the outcome being more important than the process, but youth volunteers may need a little more help with the process.

Consider providing additional training for parents and guardians.
Remember the key to good volunteer job development is creating work that’s meaningful for the volunteer and the organization.

To successfully achieve this balance, and avoid becoming just a babysitter, provide some additional training for the adults. This is a great opportunity to give parents a more in depth understanding of what you do, how you do it, and most importantly, how it impacts the community. And, by elevating parents to a leadership position, you reinforce the idea that the work is important and that the whole family is here to make an impact.

Update your volunteer agreement.
Even volunteers coming in for a one-day opportunity should be given some type of volunteer agreement outlining the roles and responsibilities of both the volunteers and the organization. This should be a short list of “Dos and Don’ts”.

Update the agreement to include a framework for younger volunteers. For example, include something like “All volunteers under the age of 16 will be supervised and within reach of a parent or guardian.” Also, update the form to include a double signature for parents of your underage volunteers.

Don’t forget the communication plan.
If your volunteer program has always been adults-only and now there will teens or children in the office, make sure everyone knows about it. A communication plan that starts early and regularly informs existing volunteers and paid staff about the changes, and the reasons for the changes, is important. Outline what your coworkers should expect and what they should do if they have concerns about the program or the volunteers.

Lastly, be sure to report a job well done. Communicate about your successes both internally to staff, and externally to the community, your donors, and other volunteers who may want to participate in the program.

What it means to volunteer, and who volunteers,  is evolving right now. I think that the volunteer programs that are the most flexible and the most creative about engaging all types of volunteers are going to be the most successful. Challenge yourself. Just because you’ve never engaged families in your volunteer program before doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Think creatively, and if you have success stories please share them with me.