When we give back to our communities through our volunteer work, we’re offering so much more than our services to any particular organization. We are giving the precious commodity of time, and for those of us with children, we are setting a powerful leadership example. Like many busy parents who give back, I often find myself wondering if I am doing enough to encourage my own kids to become volunteers themselves. It’s easy to give in to the frenetic pace of our days and put it off or engage infrequently, as we don’t want to pile on too much for our kids. I sometimes overlook easy opportunities to involve my children in my service activities, thinking I’ll eventually get around to it. Of course, sometimes it isn’t feasible for a variety of reasons, but I still find myself wondering what I can do to help them grow into adults who assume that, along with their paid work, they will volunteer in some capacity during their lives.


Luckily, I’m not alone in my thinking. In 2016, 4-H conducted a National Youth Survey on Leadership which suggested today’s youth aren’t getting the opportunities to develop their leadership skills for college or a future career. Rather than simply report their mildly depressing findings, 4-H decided to do something about it and later in 2016 they launched their Grow True Leaders Campaign, a mentorship project designed to match kids with mentors and opportunities to lead. On the face, this is quite exciting. It also opened my eyes to how much more 4-H is than kids at the state fair showing their livestock to suburbanite families (raise your hand if that’s your impression; be honest!).  The biggest “for instance” would be their commitment to bringing STEM-based programs to over 1 million children, thanks to a generous $6 million grant from Google. Team PlanHero™ finds this particularly exciting; we’ve been committed to donating a percentage of our profits to benefit STEM programs since our founding.


The National 4-H Council blog is a great place to start when it comes to looking for tangible things we can do as parents to inspire service. Brandi Riley, author of the Mama Knows it All Blog, had some excellent tips she shared with 4-H. You can find the full post here. Her three primary takeaways?


  • Find out what the people you are helping really need.
  • Make a plan before you begin.
  • Let your child take the lead.


Other ways we can encourage our children and facilitate a lifelong service ethic:


  • Incorporate your child’s passions. Does your kid love animals? Brainstorm ways they can help that is age-appropriate, whether it’s donating food to an animal shelter, spending one afternoon a month at the Humane Society, or donating a portion of their allowance (or lemonade stand revenue!) to the animal charity of their choice. When we tap into what moves our kids and give them a sense of ownership with the activity they will feel a deeper sense of connection to the cause, and learn early-on how great it feels to give back.
  • Talk to your kids about how their contribution makes a difference. Even the smallest gesture makes an impact, and too often we can become overwhelmed by the level of need and end up doing nothing. Help break the cycle early by discussing the importance of everyone doing a small part to make a big difference.
  • Incorporate giving into a pre-planned activity, like a family vacation. Depending on where you’re traveling, this could be a morning cleaning up debris on the beach, or bringing along gently-used clothing or supplies to donate to an orphanage. If you haven’t booked your trip yet, consider family-friendly voluntourism opportunities offered around the world, including Orlando, Florida. If Disneyworld is a dream, consider spending a few hours of your trip volunteering at Give Kids the World Village, a non-profit resort that provides theme park vacations for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. Adults and kids 12+ can help with pony rides, scooping ice-cream, and running a merry-go-round.
  • Do your kids receive an allowance? Help them set up a system where they choose how to allocate the funds: a percentage to save, a percentage to donate to a cause of their choice, and a percentage to spend any way they wish.
  • Leading by example is important! According to the Youth Helping America study from the Corporation for National and Community Service, children from families where at least one parent volunteers are almost twice as likely to volunteer on a regular basis. So if you’re feeling a twinge of guilt when you order pizza because you have a non-profit board meeting to attend, let this help ameliorate those feelings.
  • Start with the holidays. If you’re not sure where to begin, the holidays are always a great way to get started as a family. Once you find the activity your family enjoys the most, you can work toward giving your time during the rest of the year, when it’s often needed most.
  • Focus on gratitude. Sharing what we are thankful for isn’t just for the Thanksgiving table; taking a moment when gathered as a family to talk about one thing each person is grateful for increases our personal sense of satisfaction and empathy, two great attributes to have for the civic-minded. Bonus: volunteering makes us happier! There are many studies on this feel-good phenomenon; one study says 96% of volunteers say volunteering enriches their sense of purpose in life.


Summer can be a great time to get started on new family traditions and time together is a great opportunity to make a plan for the rest of the year. I know I will be ticking off my gratitude list at dinner tonight. How about you? What works best for your family? Are you just starting out or are you seasoned veterans? Please share your insights with us in the comments, we’d love to hear from you!