Mention the concept of families volunteering together as an intergenerational group and the response is often, "Gee, that sounds great." But there are still far too few organizations actively recruiting families as volunteers.
Families who volunteer together share the bond of a common interest or cause. It's a form of valued "quality time" between parents and their children. Family volunteering is a great solution for the time-pressured, multi-tasking adult, offering a way to do something meaningful as a parent, something of civic and educational value, and a form of recreation more rewarding - and less expensive - than movies, theme parks, and other purely entertaining past-times. If the right project is chosen, family volunteering is fun and can even provide healthy exercise!
There are tangible benefits to the organization, too. The most important is that when a family accepts a volunteer assignment together, the agency gets many hands at once to do a job. This is especially helpful if a project needs intensive staffing. Bringing in a family of 4 or 5 to do the work substitutes for having to recruit 4 to 5 individual volunteers. There are also many times in which having volunteers of varying ages provides better service to clients or consumers of varying ages. Here are some real examples of family volunteering assignments that demonstrate the benefits:
- Visiting a homebound client - a family can commit to a weekly visit and, even if only one member of the family can come in a particular week, it assures that a visit will indeed be made. Depending on the client, the presence of children may bring great joy.
- Working at clean-up and other beautification projects - ideal because there are tasks suitable for every age and skill group.
- Staffing a booth or activity at a fundraising event - which allows for sufficient coverage of that booth yet everyone can get a break, plus the younger volunteers can interact with other young people who come to the booth.
In truth, the right family team can tackle just about any assignment. It will depend on their interests, skills, and hobbies.
What's a "Family"?
We live in a world in which "families" come in all shapes and sizes. There are families of blood ties as well as intentional or chosen families. There are nuclear families and far extended ones. It doesn't matter how people self-define their own family. What matters is that there are two or more people who have a strong relationship with each other and who come from at least two generations.
One special type of family unit is a divorced, non-custodial parent with his or her children. Too often this parent is a playmate, looking for fun things to do on visiting days. Volunteering together may be a very satisfying activity that allows this parent and children to share something special with each other, while doing good in the community.
A whole family can volunteer together, or just one parent with one or more children, or a grandparent and grandchild together, or a group of siblings - there are so many possible permutations. Similarly, even if a family commits to the same organization, they do not necessarily have to work together at the same assignment.
So, if family volunteering is such a hot idea, why isn't there more of it going on?
Agencies may be wary of the possible risks of involving children in volunteer work, either for the safety of the children themselves or for fear of harm done by the children to clients. In family volunteering, however, the parents are right there to supervise as well as to permit the activity to go on. So there is a built-in safety factor.
If your agency really feels that it cannot accept young children as volunteers, you can still have a family volunteer program for parents (or other adult relatives) and pre-teens or teenagers. Older children can be more independent and really carry their weight on the family team.
There may also be some suspicion that it's the adults who decided to volunteer and dragged their children along. It's very important for every member of the family to be committed to the project. Volunteer program managers need to interview all the family members before accepting the family as a team, not negotiate the project with only one or both parents. If most of the family members seem eager but one less so, be prepared to offer an alternative assignment that might be of greater interest.
Training needs to be adapted to different age groups. All members of the family should be trained (or at least get instructions), but the methods that will reach the adults may be different from what the children need.
Finally, families will almost always need to volunteer on a Saturday or Sunday, unless it is during a school break. For some organizations this provides a great source of weekend help; for others it may limit the possible assignments.
Consider making a conscious effort to recruit family volunteers. It may be possible to collaborate with another community organization seeking family activities. A nearby faith community, for example, might welcome the idea of encouraging a number of families to volunteer together as a group. A parent-teacher organization might like to sponsor a volunteering project as a way to reach more parents for its own needs. You might even contact a group such as Parents without Partners and propose a day of family service for their year-round calendar of activities. See what connections you can make.