Source: Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Search Institute, and Jenny Friedman, Doing Good Together, March 2009
"Can you imagine anything more energizing, more unifying, more filled with satisfaction than working with members of your family to accomplish something that really makes a difference in the world?"
—Steven R. Covey (1997)
When parents nurture their child’s sense of compassion and commitment toward their community, we build a better world for now and for the future. While doing important community work—feeding the hungry, recording oral histories with elders, working for human rights—service-minded families are raising children and teenagers who are more likely to become civically engaged, thoughtful, caring, and generous adults.
There are numerous strategies that K-12 schools, community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, social service agencies, and others use for engaging parents in the service-learning programs offered for young people (e.g. Kaye, 2007; RMC Research, 2004), and parents are generally seen as vital partners for effective service-learning (RMC Research, 2008). Less attention has been paid, however, to how organizations can intentionally engage the whole family in service-learning projects and programs. Doing so has the potential to enrich families’ lives, cultivate—and act on—shared values in families, expand the organization’s reach, effectiveness, and visibility, and increase community impact. This fact sheet focuses on how organizations (schools, community organizations, social service providers, and others) provide opportunities for families to service and learn together, recognizing that it complements and reinforces the focus on engaging parents as partners in youth-focused service.
Most efforts to engage families in service focus on family volunteering, which emphasizes providing a quality experience of serving others. However, the core principles of effective service-learning have potential to enrich family service through more intentional family engagement in planning and reflecting on their service experience. In addition, service-learning provides a structured focus on learning and development goals that increase the likelihood that the service engagement will have a lasting impact on the participating families. This deeper engagement also has the potential to increase the benefits for those served.
Why does family service matter?
Family service has received relatively limited attention in the research. However, available research suggests that engaging parents and their children in service together has important benefits for families, for parents, for children and youth, for sponsoring agencies, and for communities. Though most of the research has focused on family service or volunteering, it is likely that these kinds of benefits would only be enhanced through a structured service-learning process with families.
Benefits for children and youth
Children with parents who model helping behaviors and guide their children to help others are more likely to internalize prosocial values and attitudes and to help others when they grow up, including responsibility, empathy, and caring for others (Littlepage, 2003; Roehlkepartain, Naftali, & Musegades, 2001; Stukas et al., 1999).
Youth who say their parents "spent lots of time helping others" are almost twice as likely themselves to serve others. Among young people whose parents model helping, 61 percent volunteer at least one hour per week. Among those whose parents do not model helping, only 36 percent volunteer (Roehlkepartain, 2003).
Engaging families in their children’s service experiences increases the likelihood that those young people will continue to serve as adults. Adults who saw their own parents engaging in service are much more likely to engage in community service, compared to those who did not (Jalandoni & Hume, 2001; Littlepage, 2003).
Benefits for parents
Engaging in service together with their children gives parents an opportunity to spend more high-quality time with their children, which is one of their top priorities as parents (Roehlkepartain et al., 2004).
Parents benefit from serving others in the same way as other adults, including developing interpersonal skills, increased civic participation, better mental health, and improved health outcomes (Grimm, Spring, & Dietz, 2007; Wilson & Musick, 2000).
Benefits for families
Families that engage in family service together say they do so in order to spend quality time together (63 percent), learn about their communities (70 percent), and to be positive role models for the children (57 percent) (McKaughan, 1997).
Family service has particular potential for low-income families, who tend to volunteer more than other families and who also have more difficulty finding time to be together. A growing number of social service agencies see that engaging low-income families in service increases a sense of reciprocity and mutual contribution. In addition, they recognize family service as a way to heighten families’ sense of well-being, reduce social isolation and strengthen community connections, develop skills, and increase parenting skills (Family Strengthening Policy Center, 2006).
Benefits for sponsoring organizations and civic life
Corporate volunteer managers who integrated families into their volunteerism programs say they attracted more volunteers and a wider range of skill sets as a result. They also noted that their organization experienced more community exposure and visibility than with employees who volunteered alone (Hegel & McKechnie, 2003).
Providing family service opportunities can lead volunteers to solve community problems spend more time in service. Adults who serve with other family members give an average 4.3 hours per week, compared to 2.8 hours among those who volunteer but not with family members (Jalandoni & Hume, 2001).
For nonprofits that use volunteers, engaging families has the potential to bring new energy to traditional volunteer opportunities, joy and enthusiasm to those being served, and positive role models for client families. It may also increase donations to the organization. According to surveys, family volunteers gave an average of 2.6 percent of their income to charity, while non-family volunteers gave 1.9 percent (Jalandoni & Hume, 2001).
What are the challenges?
Engaging families—in general—is challenging for many organizations and institutions — and not only in volunteering. Schools, youth-serving organizations, faith-based organizations, social service agencies, and others all struggle to find effective ways to connect, with parents and families as a whole, in mutually meaningful ways. Yet the evidence is compelling to show that parental and family engagement in young people’s daily lives and school is invaluable for educational achievement, healthy development, and community cohesion and strength (e.g., Henderson & Mapp, 2002).
Yet despite the benefits, organizations typically encounter a range of real and perceived obstacles when seeking to engage families in service and service-learning:
- Families are busy. Today’s families are highly active and sometimes feel stress. Parents who don’t volunteer with their children say that being too busy is the top reason (Russell Research, 2008). However, rather than adding stress, family service can actually enhance family life. In fact, only about one-fourth of families who participated in a National Family Volunteer Day project indicated that their involvement in service made family life more hectic. About nine out of 10 indicated that their involvement gave the family time together and helped them share in desired values (Center for Urban Policy and the Environment, 2003).
- Parents do not know about available opportunities for family service. One study found that two-thirds of mothers (69 percent) were not aware or not sure of service opportunities for younger children in their community (Russell Research, 2008). And low-income parents are much less likely to be aware of opportunities.
- Age-segregated programming and difficulty finding appropriate opportunities. Many organizations offer only age-specific service opportunities, such as service-learning projects for youth groups or volunteer programs for retired people. This leaves few intergenerational opportunities. Program planners point to liability concerns, ease of programming, and a perceived lack of projects that would appeal to all family members (Hegel, 2004). However, organizations have found that an intentional focus on family service can increase participation as it encourages intergenerational connections.
- Children—especially young teens—may not want to do some things with their parents, particularly in public. That may affect the kinds of service they will perform (making them more likely to do service with a group of families that include their friends) or where they do it (since they may be more likely to be open in places where they don’t expect to see their friends). It also help them get started younger so that serving is a normal part of growing up and family life. It is important, however, to note that parents’ involvement with younger children increases the likelihood that children will serve (Martin, S., 2008).
- Lack of experience in engaging families in service-learning. Too often, people responsible for coordinating volunteers or service projects do not have experience or tools to help them effectively engage families as a whole. If you just try to add children to an adult volunteer program, it is likely not to go well. As a result, families can become discouraged about participating, and the community is ill-served. In this case, the basic principles and practices of effective service-learning offer approaches that can help to overcome some of the important challenges.
Using service-learning to strengthen family engagement
Principles and practices of effective service-learning can be adapted and applied to strengthen the ways that schools, community-based organizations, social service agencies, and corporate volunteer programs engage families in service in the community. Though service-learning standards have been developed for K-12 settings (RMC Research and National Youth Leadership Council, 2008) and adapted for community-based settings (Roehlkepartain, 2009), the underlying principles translate effectively to engaging families. Here are some starting points:
- Inspire families about the benefits of service. Once families understand the power of family service, they are inspired to spend time serving others. Consider offering a workshop or presentation on family service in which you explore its value and offer simple service ideas. Or integrate the message into your organization newsletter, website, or current educational programs.
- Build interest through short-term, "in-house" projects. The best way to be inspired is to try it. Give families a taste of serving others with simple "in-house" projects. For example, many organizations have had success hosting a Family Service Night that features 5 to 10 booths or stations. Each offers a simple, hands-on service project for families, such as making sandwiches for a local homeless shelter (younger children) or writing letters to address environmental concerns in your town or city (teenagers). Provide opportunities to reflect on the experiences in terms of the family dynamics that emerged, how they could see value in regularly engaging in service together, and priorities they would have for future service engagement. If you are a social service agency, consider projects families can do off-site to assist you in serving your clients, such as making cards or gifts, hosting a fundraiser, or creating or maintaining a website on their behalf.
- Start by making existing service opportunities more family friendly. Several strategies for doing this include:
- Begin with simple projects that do not require extensive training or orientation.
- Offer flexible and short-term assignments to fit families’ schedules.
- Include opportunities for reflection to add depth and meaning to the project.
- Give families projects that have significant, immediately apparent impact.
- Be certain the volunteer projects are helpful to you and the people you serve.
- Design off-site opportunities that allow families to contribute in their homes, faith communities, schools, or other settings.
- Engage interested families in investigating priorities and planning the program. In the same way that youth should be active in designing and leading service-learning projects, families should have active roles in investigating community priorities and needs, then shaping their goals, priorities, learning objectives, and service objectives.
- Set goals for service and learning. Identify service goals that are appropriate for participation by all family members (children and adults) and that are achievable within the available time. Through dialogue with the family, discover their learning goals (which do not have to tie to a school-based curriculum, but could). These goals could address areas where the whole family can grow or that the whole family is interested in learning, such as how to make homes more energy-efficient, learning about a different culture, deepening their understanding of the cycle of poverty in the community, or learning how to be more civically engaged in the community.
- Establish partnerships with local organizations to provide ongoing service-learning opportunities. For example, your organization might partner with a local nursing home so that interested families can adopt a grandparent, host a bingo night or drive residents to doctor appointments.
- Take time to prepare with families for both service and learning as well as the follow-up reflection, celebration, and demonstration of learning and impact. As you prepare, keep the following in mind:
- Respond to a real issue in the community. Seek partners in the community, and include them in the planning.
- Determine how you will document the project for later demonstration, and how you will collect the needed data for evaluation and assessment, based on the service, learning, and growth goals of the families, your organization, the broader community, and community partners.
- Be aware of the interests and skills of the families, and be certain that every family member, regardless of age, can contribute meaningfully while also being challenged to learn and grow. Offer various volunteer options to suit families with different ages, interests, time constraints, and locations.
- Invite all families to participate, not just those who are already active. Personal invitations are the most effective way to increase participation.
- Before doing the service, address expectations, explore the issues involved, and train families with any skills that will be required.
- Make time for reflection. Use reflection time and activities to encourage conversation among family members—and between family groups—about the value of helping others, critical social issues, family dynamics, and other learning goals. It is through such reflection that serving others becomes a deeply embedded and lifelong value. Several available reflection guides are readily adaptable for families (National Service-Learning Clearinghouse, 2007).
- Demonstrate and celebrate learning and impact. Create a forum for families to be recognized for their efforts and talk with one another about what they have accomplished. Use collected data and other documentation of the projects (videos, reflection poems, journals, photographs, letters) to tell the project story in ways that generate attention and support while also setting the stage for ongoing and broader engagement.
Strengthening families while strengthening communities
Families are vital partners in service-learning programs in K-12 schools, community-based programs, faith-based programs, and others. And though they can play important support and logistical roles in a youth-focused service-learning project, the evidence suggests that their power, influence, and advocacy would be even stronger if they were themselves actively engaged in service-learning.
Though there are real challenges to overcome in reshaping programming to actively and fully engage families, the return on that investment has the potential not only to strengthen the families and increase lifelong service involvement among young people, but it also expands the potential reach, impact, and support base for the organizations and communities that meaningfully involve families in working together to strengthen communities while also strengthening families.
Other practical tools on family service and volunteering
Practical guides for parents
Friedman, J. (2003). The Busy Family’s Guide to Volunteering. Beltsville, MD: Robins Lane.
Price, S. C. (2001). The Giving Gamily: Raising Our Children to Help Others. Washington, DC: Council on Foundations.
Vogt, S. (2002). Raising Kids Who Make a Difference. Chicago: Loyola Press.
Weisman, C. (2006). Raising Charitable Children. St. Louis, MO: F. F. Robbins and Sons.
Practical guides for program leaders
Kaye, K. B. (2007). What is Service-Learning? A Guide for Parents. Scotts Valley, CA: National Service-Learning Clearinghouse.
McCurley, S. (1999). Family-Friendly Volunteering: A Guide for Agencies. Washington, DC: Points of Light Foundation.
Porritt, K (1995). Family Volunteering: The Ties That Bind—An Introduction to Preparing Your Agency for Family Volunteers. Ottawa, Ontario: Volunteer Canada. Download from www.nald.ca/library/research/heritage/compartne/pdfdocs/family.pdf
Scherer, C., & Fabyi-King, D. (2007). Family volunteering: A guide for the workplace. Washington, DC: Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network.
Thoele, M. (2001). Family Serve: Volunteer Opportunities for Families. Appleton, WI: AAL QualityLife Resources.Websites
Doing Good Together. Offers project ideas for families and organizations to effectively engage parents and their children in service projects, and shares stories of how family service has strengthened families and made a difference in communities.
Family Cares. Developed by the Points of Life Institute, this site focuses on promoting and supporting Family Volunteer Day (annually in November). It also offers ideas and additional resources on various social issues and service opportunities.
The Volunteer Family. Provides tips and information for parents to facilitate family volunteering while also offering information to help agencies plan and prepare for family volunteers. www.volunteerfamily.com
Covey, S. R. (1997). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families. New York: Golden Books.
Family Strengthening Policy Center (2006). Family Volunteering: Nurturing Families, Building Community (Policy Brief #17). Washington, DC: National Human Services Assembly.
Grimm, R., Jr., Spring, K., & Dietz, N. (2007). The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A review of recent research. Washington, DC: Corporation for National and Community Service, Office of Research and Policy Development.
Hegel, A. (2004). Volunteer Connections: Family Volunteering—Making It Official. Ottawa: Volunteer Canada.
Hegel, A., & McKechnie, A. J. (2003). Family Volunteering: The Final Report. Ottawa, Ontario: Volunteer Canada.
Henderson, A. T., & Mapp, K. L. (2002). New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.
Jalandoni, N., & Hume, K. (2001). America’s Family Volunteers: Civic Participation is a Family Matter. Washington, DC: Independent Sector.
Kaye, K. B. (2007). What is Service-Learning? A Guide for Parents. Scotts Valley, CA: National Service-Learning Clearinghouse.
Littlepage, L. (2003). Family Volunteering: An Exploratory Study of the Impact on Families. Indianapolis, IN: Center for Urban Policy and the Environment, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
Martin, S. (2008, winter). Kids as a force for positive social change. KIDformation.
McKaughan, M. (1997). Corporate Volunteerism: How Families Make a Difference. New York: The Conference Board.
National Service-Learning Clearinghouse. Reflection in Service-Learning: Selected Resources. Scotts Valley, CA: Author, 2007.
RMC Research Corporation (2004). Parent and Family Involvement. Scotts Valley, CA: National Service-Learning Clearinghouse.
RMC Research Corporation (2008). Standards and Indicators for Effective Service-Learning Practice. Scotts Valley, CA: National Service-Learning Clearinghouse.
Roehlkepartain, E. C. (2003). Engaging families in service: Rationale and resources for congregations. Family Ministry: Empowering through Faith, 17 (3), 22-41.
Roehlkepartain, E. C. (2009). Service-Learning in Community-Based Organizations: A Practical Guide to Starting and Sustaining High-Quality Programs. Scotts Valley, CA: Learn and Serve America’s National Service-Learning Clearinghouse.
Roehlkepartain, E. C., Naftali, E. D. & Musegades, L. (2000). Growing Up Generous: Engaging Youth in Giving and Serving. Bethesda, MD: Alban Institute.
Russell Research (2008). Quaker Moms: Birthday Party With a Purpose (Final Report). Unpublished market research study for Quaker’s Kids Doing Good campaign.
Stukas, A. A., Jr., Switzer, G. E., Dew, M. A., Goycoolea, J. M., & Simmons, R. G. (1999). Parental helping models, gender, and service-learning. Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, 18, pp. 5-18.
Wilson, J., & Musick, M. (2000). The effects of volunteering on the volunteer. Law and Contemporary Problems, 62 (4), 141-168.
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