Family Volunteering and Youth Engagement in the Non-Profit Sector: An Analysis of Benefits

by A. Lisa Fahrenthold, December 2003
published with permission

Executive Summary

The practice of utilizing families as a resource for volunteering has received much attention and literature in the past decade. Another sector of the population recognized as contributing much to the non-profit sector are youth. According to the United States Department of Labor, 27.6 percent of Americans over sixteen volunteered from September 2001 to September 2002. (2002) The youth population is also active in volunteerism. The Gallup Organization for Independent Sector reported 59 percent of teens aged twelve through seventeen volunteered in the previous year. (Brown, 2000) Examples of youth volunteering range from fundraising to direct service.

The trend of requiring youth to volunteer through religious organizations and school has received much praise and has been complemented by national youth volunteer programs, such as AmeriCorps. Regardless of initial motivations to volunteer, the lifelong implications of youth volunteering are numerous. Organizations that utilize volunteers can benefit greatly from this approach to volunteering. Research proves that individuals who volunteer as youth are much more likely to volunteer as adults and contribute more, monetarily, to non-profit organizations.

Support for family volunteering from research, literature, and volunteer management organizations are included in this report. The correlations between youth volunteerism and family volunteering are fascinating and truly enhance the argument that family volunteering is beneficial to families and non-profit organizations.

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Volunteers are an integral part of today's society. People who contribute time and energy to activities for which they will not receive monetary compensation are providing invaluable services in areas that may not be as successful without volunteers. According to the United States Department of Labor, 27.6 percent of Americans over sixteen volunteered from September 2001 to September 2002. The opportunities to volunteer are numerous and organizations have begun to seriously evaluate how best to recruit volunteers and find appropriate jobs for them. Currently, volunteers are found in many places. They are seen coaching little league, shelving books at the library, helping a child learn how to read, and building houses.

People discover opportunities to volunteer through many avenues. Religious organizations and schools are most well known for encouraging volunteerism. A trend of corporate volunteering, in which large corporations or for profit companies organize employees to volunteer on a designated day, has also increased. Within all types of volunteering at many locations, common characteristics exist. Current research on the subject reveals that certain segments of the population are more likely to volunteer and that different lifestyles contribute to the likelihood that one will volunteer.

The focus of this report will be families and, specifically, families with children and youth. There is incredible support for volunteering as a child or teenager and even more for volunteering as a child or teenager with one's family. Individuals are much more likely to volunteer throughout their lifetimes if they volunteer as a child or teenager. The likelihood increases when individuals volunteer with their family. Organizations need to utilize this information to tap into a valuable resource. Family volunteering is not as widespread as it could be. As the nuclear family unit disappears in America, and varying compositions of families develop, organizations that use volunteers can create unique opportunities for these people to contribute their time and energy.

First, the step must be taken to realize the value of families and youth as volunteers.

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Youth Volunteering

Do Youth Volunteer?

The youth of America have numerous opportunities to volunteer, for some; it is a requirement for school, church, or synagogue. There has also been an increase during the past decade in national level volunteer programs for young adults, such as AmeriCorps. While AmeriCorps is aimed at youth who have graduated high school, there is a strong correlation between volunteering during high school and participation in AmeriCorps. (Brown, 2000) Different figures exist on the percentage of youth who volunteer. The Department of Labor found that 26.9 percent of the 16 to 19 year olds surveyed had volunteered in the past year; compared against a survey by the Gallup Organization for Independent Sector, which reported 59 percent of teens aged twelve through seventeen volunteered in the previous year. (2002; Brown, 2000) The variations in numbers may be attributed to the sample size or the difference in the range of ages. Regardless, both figures represent substantial portions of the youth population in America.

For examples of Youth Volunteer projects and services, visit these websites:

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Parents and Children

There is a surprisingly strong relationship between volunteering and having children in the household. While there are variations depending on the age of the children, number of children, and the nature of the volunteer work, parents with children are much more likely to volunteer than adults without children. (Wilson, 2000) According to the 2000 survey by the Department of Labor, 36.5 percent of adults with children under age 18 volunteered, compared to 23.7 percent of adults without children. (p. 2) Comparably, the Gallup Organization for the Independent Sector survey found that 53.7 percent of adults with children under age 18 volunteered, versus 45.1 percent of adults without children under age 18.

The reasons for this phenomenon are not well defined. Some researchers have found that the majority of parents are volunteering for activities that directly affect their children, such as little league and school functions. (Wilson, 2000) The Department of Labor survey shows that when volunteer service is broken down by type, such as "Religious" or "Hospital/Public Health", the largest number of volunteer hours for men and women with children are attributed to "Educational or Youth Service." 37.9 percent of men and 45.9 percent of women that volunteer and have children under age eighteen serve in the "Educational or Youth Service" area. (2002)

This is an important aspect of volunteering for organizations and volunteer managers to remain cognizant of when designing volunteer opportunities. Designating this segment of the population as valuable to a volunteer program brings a new aspect to a volunteer program.

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The Lifelong Impact of Volunteering as a Youth

What affect does volunteering as a child and teenager have on volunteering throughout one's lifetime? Considerable research has been done on this subject and shows that there is a positive correlation. A survey conducted by Westat, Inc. for Independent Sector found that not only are adults who volunteered during their childhood much more likely to continue volunteering into adulthood, but also donate more and a larger percentage of their income annually as adults. (Independent Sector, 2001)

Ideological benefits are also seen with youth who volunteer and adults that volunteered as youth. The basis for this benefit is found in service learning, in which youth engage in structured curricula about an issue, such as homelessness, and then do volunteer work in the area, at a homeless shelter, for example. In these instances, youth acquire moral education as well as experiential opportunities. (Yates & Youniss, 1999) National youth volunteer initiatives, such as AmeriCorps have received significant attention and praise for increasing youth's moral and ideological view. This same theory can also be applied to youth volunteering in general.

The RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at The University of Texas at Austin performed a noteworthy survey in 2001 and 2002 about college students' volunteer experiences. Included in the study were both volunteer habits and motivations. Out of the 1,514 university students, 76 percent who volunteered during high school continued to volunteer during college in the year of the survey. (RGK, 2002) Referring to the ideological motivators, 80 percent of the total number of students that volunteered in the previous year did so because they felt it was their "civic duty." (RGK, p. 3)

It can be concluded that volunteering as a child and teenager has an impact, not only on the chance that an individual will volunteer as an adult, but also on the formation of moral judgment and ideological motivators.

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Family Volunteering

Recent family volunteering initiatives strive to define the word, "family" by placing broad generalizations. In today's society, a family can consist of a married couple with children, aunts and uncles, foster parents, and adopted children, to name a few. The Volunteer Calgary website emphasizes the necessity of not defining the word when promoting family volunteering programs. (Volunteer Calgary, 2002)

Formally involving the entire family in volunteer activities addresses the benefits of youth volunteering while utilizing the volunteer resource of adults with children under eighteen. There appears to be hesitation on the part of families and organizations alike to participate in this activity. A study on Family Volunteering performed in 2003 identified costs of volunteering as a family:

  • Financial costs, such as reduction in work time and transportation costs
  • Personal costs, such as entire family becoming attached to someone and having to move on
  • Lack of opportunities for family volunteering.

(Center for Urban Policy, 2003)

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Family Volunteering for Families

From the previous sections, one can see how volunteering as a youth and volunteering as a family is beneficial to the families and the organizations. Family volunteering is a type of volunteering that may be misunderstood by families wanting to participate. For this reason, nonprofit organizations concerned with evaluating and encouraging family volunteering have performed surveys or informal research to promote family volunteering. The Points of Light Foundation conducted a survey on the subject of family volunteering in 2003. The findings focus on motivations, concerns, and benefits that the families interviewed feel they possess as a result of family volunteering. An additional example exists at the Volunteer Calgary website, which includes incredibly user-friendly information on the subject.

Benefits of Family Volunteering:

  • (from Points of Light Foundation):
    • Children's value systems strengthen because children see parents are involved
    • Parents and children gain self-satisfaction from volunteering
    • Benefits the youth by helping with college and job applications
  • (from Volunteer Calgary):
    • Family volunteering strengthens families by creating a common goal and improving communication
    • It helps create a new generation of dedicated volunteers

There is an increasing need for innovative and constructive settings for families to spend together. As the shape and make-up of the American evolves from the nuclear family of the 1950s to families that may be spread throughout the country or over visitation rights, people require wholesome activates to participate in as families. Organizations that utilize volunteers can provide the much needed resource of family volunteering opportunities.

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Opportunities for Family Volunteering

The possibilities for types and models of family volunteering are currently being explored within the nonprofit sector, mostly through surveys of existing programs and participants. In an article published in the Christian Science Monitor, the author describes examples of family volunteering in the United States. The most common activities which she reports that the Gallup poll found, included helping older people, working with youth programs, and helping church or religious programs. A great number families assist in sports or school programs and some are involved in environmental programs and serving the homeless. (Gardner, unknown) Additionally, in a survey conducted on family volunteering in Canada, the researchers found the top three volunteer activities for families to be organizing special events, fundraising, and board governance. (Volunteer Canada, 2002)

What models exist for family volunteering? The practice is typically largely informal and heavily utilized by organizations that are more likely to not have a volunteer manager, such as religious organizations. In addition, similar concerns arise for organizations similar to those of families. There exists a perception that family volunteering programs will be costly and take significant time to effectively implement. (Volunteer Canada, 2002) Fortunately, there are a growing number of websites and tools for families interested in volunteer opportunities and organizations searching for information on implementing a family volunteering program:

For Families:

For Organizations:


Strong evidence exists to support youth volunteering. The implications of volunteering as a youth on future volunteer activities and giving are numerous and well proven. Adults with children are also seen as significant contributors as volunteers. The logical combination of these is family volunteering. Effective family volunteer program will ultimately benefit both families and non-profit organizations that utilize volunteers. The challenge lies in designing family volunteer programs that will address concerns and provide the necessary variability needed to complement the varying family types in today's society.

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