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Community Service with Nonprofits: How to Get Them to Say YES to Kids

Community Service with Nonprofits Pennies of Time

“Sheila, I really want to have my kids help out.

So, I called the nursing home.  But, they said no!”

I can usually guess when something comes out through the media in a big way on the topic of “teaching kids to be kind.”  I get emails and comments just like the one above from a parent that emailed recently.

Earlier this summer, Making Caring Common, a group from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, published a report: “The Children We Mean to Raise:  The Real Message Adults Are Sending About Values.” The researchers surveyed over 10,000 middle and high school students.  They also surveyed school personnel on their attitudes and beliefs.  In short:  Kids believe that parents care more about academic achievement or being happy than being caring towards others.  Here are the numbers:

  • 80% of the students expressed the belief that their parents ranked achievement or happiness over caring for others, and the report further cites that about the same percentage of students believes their teachers value achievement over caring. (1)
  • Highlighted several times in the report was this particular point:  “Students were three times more likely to agree than disagree with this statement on our survey: ‘My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.'” (1)

Why does this matter?  In my words:  kids, as a whole, didn’t believe that parents think caring for others is as valued as having academic success.  Shut the door.  If you don’t want that to be the message you are sending your kids, the researchers from this study pointed out recommendations for parents and schools in an effort to help.  Read about those in the Executive Summary, quite a quick read.

In short, one of the recommendations is to complete daily acts of caring with kids. I shared with Barbara Gruener, a fabulous school counselor and author of “What’s In Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind,” some thoughts on this in the Q&A: How Do We Make Caring Commonplace?

Q&A Tips for Starting Daily Acts

How do we do that?  I am getting emails asking just that, which I LOVE, because:  When most people think of caring for others, helping the community, they think of the nonprofits that serve the neediest, the homeless, the elderly, the hungry, and the abused.  People can help those organizations as an easy way to give back to their community.

BUT, here is the disconnect, the reason why people end up contacting me frustrated:  Many nonprofits have age limits on who can pass through their doors to help.  The age of 14 seems a common one.  There are real reasons for this from liability concerns to privacy needs of their populations. 

Couple those concerns with how, oftentimes, nonprofits have difficulty understanding how kids can help, and they turn away young volunteers and their families.   So, does that mean that we can’t engage with nonprofits, developing a caring focus in family activities?  No.

Working with local nonprofits is a meaningful way to help those in your community. Veterans, the elderly, those that are homeless, and animals that need help are populations that rely on nonprofits for assistance.  These are also populations that WE should be helping, teaching our kids to serve.

How to Approach Nonprofits

Pennies of Time is working to help bridge the distance between families and nonprofits.  What I have found is that nonprofits do want to engage with you and your family in developing a relationship.   At the same time, many need help in understanding how families can help other than dropping off a check.  (I’ll address that at the end.)  Parents that understand the needs in their communities are in a better position to teach their kids about need and how to help.

How To Work with Nonprofits So They WANT Your Help

Get to know organizations in your community that:  serve the elderly, help those that are homeless, provide services for kids in the foster system, and help abandoned and abused animals.  Those are just suggestions.  Follow your passions about what you care about!

  • Research and find those organizations in your area.
  • “Like” the organization’s page on Facebook and get to know the organization and the needs of those they serve. You will come across updates about fundraising . . . But you will also hear about other needs that your family can help fill.
  • For example: This winter I knew when our local shelter needed more blankets because the organization put out a call on Facebook for donations. With this tidbit, I was able to share with my boys about an “in real time” need that the shelter had and brainstorm ways we could help.

Plan to volunteer as a FAMILY.  This is not soccer practice where you can drop off Susy Ann and expect the nonprofit to entertain her while she volunteers.  Besides, AWESOMELY COOL stuff happens when you help another.  You want to be there for that.  Clear the calendar for a chance to volunteer with your kids.

Expect to be asked to go to a volunteer training or submit your information to a background check. (Though, you might not have to.) Meals on Wheels (which you can do with your KIDS) has a short orientation for volunteers.  On the background check, I have done this in order to have my boys come visit a nursing home with their friends.  I filled out the info, easy-peasy.  Once my background check was cleared, it made it easier to go back for future visits.

Find a nonprofit you want your family to help?  Start the conversation!

Call and ask to talk to the “volunteer coordinator,” which is a real job.  (“Activity Director” is another one I hear frequently.)  Oftentimes, volunteers man the phones.  If you jump in and ask them, they will probably say “I don’t know” or, the dreaded, “no” because they don’t know.  You want to talk to someone that better knows how to flexibly meet you in the middle in involving kids in the process.

When talking about what you don’t do, do NOT say KIDS right off the bat.  Or young kids, or preschoolers, or children . . . you know what I mean.  I know, seems so silly.  But, every conversation where I started with KIDS ended in a NO that I had to revisit.  Instead, use the word FAMILY.  “Hi, My name is Sheila.  I live in the area and want to develop a relationship with your organization.  I think it is wonderful how you help kids in foster care.  My FAMILY and I would like to find out how to help you.”

When calling, be prepared.  Ahead of time, jot down some notes as to ways you think your family can help.  If this is the first time you are contacting the nonprofit, they may not know exactly what you have in mind.  I have had parents send links to projects from Pennies of Time to give the nonprofit some context on what the parent hopes to do for the nonprofit.

Allow a conversation to happen.  Even after you use the word “family” and ensure the person that you are serious, it may take some creative brainstorming to come up with an idea.  And, as it has happened with me, they might ask to get back to you.  That’s okay.  If you don’t hear back from them, call and check in.

If they say NO, don’t get discouraged. 

  • Ask if there are any projects that can be done at your house that would help their organization.  (putting together homeless care kits, busy books, and chemo care kits are often done for nonprofits with this collaboration)
  • Ask if they know of another organization that helps them that you should call.  (For example:  There was a homeless shelter that my son wanted to help.  Because of the privacy concerns of those in this specific shelter, we were unable to help them.  But, we did find another organization that helps that same homeless shelter and have developed a nice relationship with them.)
  • If there really doesn’t seem to be a way that they feel like they can accept help from you and your family, be cordial, keep the good vibes on the phone, and let them know that you’ll be happy to help if an appropriate service projects comes up in the future.

“Sheila, I want this to be easier!  All this seems like work!”

If coordinating with a nonprofit that doesn’t already engage with kids just is too overwhelming, you can decide not to.  That’s okay.  There plenty of ideas out there to teach your kids to be involved in community service that don’t require a link to a nonprofit.  Look at the menu options on this site and get started with your family!  I would encourage you to just try calling, at least once.  Amazing things happen when you get on a phone and offer to help another.

I mentioned earlier my thoughts on handing over a check as a way to help.

My Thoughts on Donation Dumping

All nonprofits seek funding.  Hands down, all need more money to improve programming, serve more people.  At the same time, I am not a big proponent in using a monetary donation as a great way for kids to help nonprofits.  Simply emptying out a piggy bank into another person’s hand will not help the kids connect with the mission of the nonprofit and better understand the needs of the population that is served.

For example:  I have a friend whose daughter was selling pictures to raise money for sick kids.  An excellent idea!  She found a way to use her artistic talent to help out another. She earned $70 for sick kids by selling her artwork.  What an incredible achievement!  At the same time, when asked by her mom about how the money would help sick kids, she was at a loss.  “To buy them stuff?”  Her mother decided to go the extra distance and have her daughter meet some of the children that might benefit from the donation.  She wanted her daughter to learn more about what it was like to be chronically ill, what life was like to miss out on going to the pool or having to have blood drawn twice a week.  THAT part of the experience is what really built up her daughter’s level of empathy and further mature her understanding of helping someone in need.

Nonprofits do need donations.  Marvelous work is done through donations.  At the same time, when it comes to involving kids in donating money, provide a way for the kids to connect with those receiving help from the nonprofit.

What organizations do your kids help in the community?

Citation:  (1) “The Children We Mean to Raise:  The Real Message Adults Are Sending About Values.” from Making Caring Common at the Harvard Graduate School of Education