Drawing children into philanthropic activities can have multiple benefits. We explore six of them, along with ways to get the next generation to participate.

The positives of service are fairly straightforward when considering the beneficiaries— but there is much to be gained on the “giving side” of the equation as well, including personal satisfaction, improved self-worth, empathy and real-world experience. These are major positives, and while it’s never too late to start, it’s also never too early to get your children involved.

That said, it can be a puzzle to figure out how best to introduce them to philanthropy and how you may wish to spend your (and their) time and money in doing so. Below are what I would consider some key benefits to having children (as well as grandchildren, nieces and nephews) take part, followed by some practical ideas to help you move forward.

Why Get the Younger Generation Involved?

1. Connect Action and Impact

Whether reading to underserved children, spending time with isolated seniors or cleaning up an abandoned lot, children and young adults can easily see the positive results of their service. With financial giving, generally the more tangible the effect, the better it is at helping young givers understand the impact.

2. Hardwire Them for Happiness

A study published in Nature Communications and cited in The New York Times Magazine in 2017 found that “generosity changed the activity in people’s brains in ways that increase feelings of happiness, even if the generous act is small or only imagined.” Further, “those who agreed to give away money reported feeling significantly happier than those who planned to spend it on themselves.”1 Who doesn’t want happy, more generous children?

3. Introduce a Positive Outlet

For all the arguable plusses associated with social media, it has downsides and tends to take over our children’s (and our) lives. According to Psychology Today, social media “does not make your child smarter or more prepared for real life or a future job; nor is it necessary for healthy social development. It is pure entertainment.”2 Of course, there are many other habit-forming unproductive ways children can use their time, among them playing video games and endlessly searching the Internet. The point is that negative patterns can be disrupted, and encouraging volunteerism in order to get up and out, and connect with others, is one way to do so.

4. Foster Networking and Leadership

For young adults, joining a nonprofit’s junior board or “young professionals committee” can also develop leadership skills and increase their professional and personal networks. For younger children, teens and tweens, just interacting with people (whether it be serving meals at a soup kitchen or socializing with senior citizens) can help them to develop relationship-building skills in dealing with people outside of their comfort zone.

5. Increase Self-Confidence

In addition to the social/communication and leadership skills noted above, service and giving can make people of all ages feel capable and competent. Whether in completing a long day refurbishing a school or sticking to a weekly volunteer schedule, one can see the results of hard work, giving and dedication. It feels good to be needed, thanked and to know that you made a difference.

6. Encourage Gratitude and Empathy

This one is a given, but also too important not to address. When a child or young person begins helping those in need, it is easier for her to appreciate all she has. Whether feeding the hungry, buying a toy for a holiday drive or picking up trash in a park, these acts can help remind young people of their fortunate situation and teach them empathy for those in lesser circumstances.

Getting Started

Hopefully, the above ideas have convinced you of the benefits of getting the next generation involved in giving back time and money to the community, but what’s next? Here are some ways to help your child or young adult get started.

Local Volunteering

Finding ways for your children to volunteer isn’t always easy. There are often age restrictions and requirements. Often the easiest way to do it is to “go local,” for example at a senior center or soup kitchen in your neighborhood. I find that when you drop in and ask how your family might be of help and what are good visiting times, etc., organizations are more open to enlisting your help. There are also often opportunities to engage at school, through places of worship and through online websites that connect volunteers with opportunities. In the case of younger children, you will want to accompany them throughout; for other youth, you may wish to go with them on the first one or two occasions to assure that things go smoothly and that the activity is the right fit. To the extent practical, ask your children what appeals to them (volunteering at an animal shelter, cleaning a park, and so on). Doing so can help them feel empowered and engaged.

Family Drive or Fundraiser

With busy schedules, it is not always easy to carve out extended or regular time to volunteer. Participating in a drive or fundraiser for something specific is a tangible but often less time-intensive way to give back. For example, if you have a young soccer player at home, you can have her run a small drive with teammates to collect soccer gear for underserved children. Don’t forget to involve your kids in researching a good partner for their activities. The U.S. Soccer Foundation’s “Operation Passback” is just one example.

You might also consider helping your child fundraise for something tangible. Your local community center or fire station may have a need that has gone unfulfilled—for example, new games or bean bag chairs for the center, or a new refrigerator or cookware for the firehouse. Set up a meeting with your child and a staff member to establish needs and then let your child involve friends and family through a small fundraiser.

Active Giving

There are other ways to give “actively”—and some nonprofits are already set up for your engagement. DonorsChoose is a great example. This group connects donors with public school classrooms in need all over the country through an easy-to-use online platform. A few years back, for “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day,” we asked teams of children to review different projects in need of funding and make a pitch as to why the project of their choice was most worthy. The winning team got their project funded by the firm, and all “players” received a $50 DonorsChoose gift card to “spend” at home with their families.

Another example is the North Shore Animal League’s Sponsor a Pet Program. For those families who have to say “no” to a live pet, it allows children to pick animals online to assist financially, so they can receive medical care and attention. It’s a great way to demonstrate the tangible results of giving.

These are just a few examples, but I’m sure you get the point. I am not suggesting that sending a check to a large organization won’t be helpful, but making your giving local or concrete can be very effective in helping young people understand the benefits and impact.

Young Professionals Committee

Many nonprofits not only have a governing board, but also a “junior board” or “young professionals committee” to engage the next generation. Age ranges vary, but these groups are generally for people in their 20s and 30s. Their mission is usually to “friendraise” (i.e., get the word out about the nonprofit and its mission) and less to “fundraise,” although there are often small-scale fundraisers involved, such as cocktail parties with low entry fees. The group often meets more often than a governing board to plan “friend-raiser” events, volunteer and network. This is a great option for young adults as it helps develop leadership, communication and project management skills. It also instantly broadens their social and professional network though peers in the group. In addition, there are often opportunities to interact with the senior board or trustees. And if nothing formal presents itself, there are always informal ways to connect with senior people, simply by reaching out. To learn more about exploring board service, click here.

Keep It Simple

Finally, it’s important to keep your plans simple, particularly when it comes to young children. There doesn’t have to be a grandiose plan in place for your child to “save the world” or establish her own nonprofit by age 10. Service is a way of life and your child will pick up on your actions and use them to model her own. For example, if a parent at school is ill, spend a Sunday afternoon preparing a meal for the family and deliver it. If an older relative is in a nursing home, work with your child to draw colorful pictures to brighten their walls or create a care package to help with sometimes long days. At the end of the school year, you might pop into a local store and let your child select a gift for his bus driver and deliver it himself on the last day. The possibilities of giving are endless and the rewards are great.

Enjoy your journey of giving.