Those of us involved with volunteerism for a long time have always thought that the easiest way to ensure its future is to teach volunteering to childrean at a very early age. Susan wrote a book about how to involve Children as Volunteers (defined as children under 14 years old), with the first edition published in 1983. During the late 1990s, Steve helped develop the Points of Light Foundation’s family volunteering initiative that focused on getting parents and their children to volunteer together.
We both still think this is a very good idea. Research shows that those who volunteer as children are much more likely to continue to volunteer as adults – providing, of course, that they have a good experience that they want to repeat. Here's an interesting article by Gabina Torres on the reasons for involving children as volunteers.
The concept is also popular with parents. A 2008 Quaker Youth Volunteerism Report found that nearly two-thirds of mothers want to guide their children to volunteer. But according to the report, most of the mothers aren’t aware of volunteer opportunities for their children (69%), while many think they don’t have the time to involve their children (44%) and others don’t know how to make volunteering fun and relevant (45%).
Efforts to Involve Children as Volunteers
There are some interesting experiments out there to try to encourage participation by children. One of the most fascinating is Woogi World (www.woogiworld.com), an interactive online community that involves children in games, discussions, etc. It also contains a service component that encourages children to participate more actively in their communities. The site is now partnering with ServiceNation, the new initiative to promote community engagement.
Idealist has a portion of its Web site devoted to projects for kids and teens, along with a listing of projects and organizations that children as young as six have spearheaded. Consider Ryan’s Well Foundation:
At the age of six, Ryan Hrelijac learned that without access to clean water people become ill and sometimes even die. He set out to raise $70 towards building a well in Africa and, having reached his goal in four months, Ryan kept working and organizing. He has now raised over $1,000,000 and his work has helped to change the lives of thousands of people in Africa who might not otherwise have been able to lead healthy, normal lives. Ryan's Well Foundation has come together to continue this important and inspiring work.
And there are organizations such as KidsKorps (kidskorps.org), which engages kids from ages 5 to 18 in service projects: “Our mission is to instill in America’s youth the spirit of giving while providing valuable education in leadership and responsibility. Our vision is to develop leaders for life through youth volunteerism.” What Kids Can Do (www.whatkidscando.org) and Blossom International (blossominternational.org) offer similar encouragement and activity suggestions.
And Some Strange Experiments
There are also some rather strange things occurring.
Quaker, a division of PepsiCo., Inc. and a major manufacturer of cereals and snack bars, sponsors the “Birthday Party with a Purpose,” an effort to “introduce children to the thrill of doing good for their communities while experiencing all the fun of a traditional birthday party.”
Quaker distributes how-to guides, “Kids Doing Good” t-shirts and “Goodness Bags” with wristbands, temporary tattoos and activity booklets. And the company suggests party themes, such as the Pirate Party: “Ahoy me hearties! Enjoy an exciting treasure hunt to find ‘loot’ to donate to hospitalized children.” Or the Tea Party: “Your little lady will love the opportunity to be hospitable to others, and make lunch for the homeless.”
Of course, to receive a kit you have to buy four boxes of Quaker Chewy® Granola Bars of Quaker Granola Bites and mail in the UPC codes from the boxes.
Mixing commercialism with volunteer boosterism is increasing. Here are a just few other examples:
- Becky Bones Shoes has what it calls a “teen echo-portal” and says: “Becky Bones is the brand for inspired teens who want to save the planet. Becky Bones gives back 25% of profits for grassroots solutions like planting trees, starting recycling programs, and other green projects you create.”
- In the UK, McDonald’s Corporation puts major effort into promoting active lifestyles, in order to encourage volunteer coaching for football (American soccer) and engage young people in other activities. Notes the company: “McDonald's is committed to reinforcing the importance of energy balance – that is, the food you eat balanced with the activity you do.”
- Children’s television channel Nickelodeon has sponsored The Big Help for many years and uses it to promote its television characters. Nick has also partnered with Burger King® and Gap, Inc. to gain more visibility and product tie-ins.
There is nothing inherently wrong with businesses engaging in cause-related marketing, especially if volunteering by kids is the beneficiary. But it does raise some interesting questions, which recently surfaced in an article on the ParentDish Web site about Pizza Hut’s long-time reading program called “BOOK IT!”:
The program, which has been in place for 27 years in the US, provides incentive for students to read. Every month, kids who reach their monthly reading goal get a gift certificate they can redeem at Pizza Hut for a personal pan pizza. Since the family will usually accompany the child, the restaurant chain increases its revenue, the kids gets a pizza, and reading goals are accomplished. Everyone wins, right?
Not so, say critics, who protest that Pizza Hut is using the name of education to provide junk food to a captive audience, and sneakily positions Pizza Hut as an important part of raising literate children. Further, they say, corporations have no place in the classroom.
But the program also has its share of fans, noting that BOOK IT! makes teachers’ jobs easier and encourages reading in reluctant students. It even won a citation from President Reagan in 1988.
When involving kids, one of the issues is whether they are more fragile and impressionable than adults and more easily exploited. It’s actually a substantive argument against involving child volunteers. On the other hand, we’re not sure why selling volunteering like cereal bothers us. Who wouldn’t want to be the “Volunteer of the Year” and get your picture on a box of Wheaties?
But There’s Resistance
Despite charitable and profitable recruitment efforts, the biggest barrier to volunteering by children has always been the reluctance of agencies to accept them. Anyone who has ever tried to volunteer with their child can attest to how hard it is to find a welcome. The rationales for this have included such protests as the following – to which we reply:
Agencies say: Children can’t be volunteers because of child labor laws.
We say: Totally not true.
Agencies say: There is increased risk of liability if children volunteer.
We say: Partially true, but no more so than with any type of volunteer.
Agencies say: We don’t have any work that children might do.
We say: Only true if you aren’t very creative.
Agencies say: Our staff aren’t comfortable with having children volunteer.
We say: Quite often true, so why not give them training to become comfortable?
There is a lot of information available on ways to safely and productively involve children as volunteers (see, for example, the tip sheet from the Volunteer Development Agency of Belfast at http://www.causewayvc.org/pdfs/Children%20and%20Volunteering.pdf). Still, the percentage of volunteer programs that allow, much less encourage and enable, children to volunteer is vanishingly small.
It strikes us that the real reason organizations don’t want to deal with children as volunteers is that they see little value in it for the organizations. They simply can’t imagine how kids might be of real service, while they can definitely imagine problems.
So it isn’t enough to extol the virtues of volunteering for children; we need to show that organizations can benefit enormously from the youngest volunteers.
Some Questions to Our Readers
We know that you’re now expecting answers or how-to’s from us. But really, we’d prefer hearing from you. So we’re soliciting your Point of View on this issue, beginning with the following questions:
- What do you think about involving children as volunteers? Is volunteering a valuable experience to provide to young children?
- What can children offer as volunteers to the organizations they help?
- What do you think is the youngest age at which children can volunteer? Why?
- Why are so many agencies so reluctant to involve children? Are fears about involving children real or just reluctance to change the ways in which we traditionally operate volunteer programs?
- Is there such a thing as going too far in getting children to volunteer? Is volunteering just another way to sell cereal?
Tell us what you think through the comment form below. And let’s see what conversation we can start together.