Four ways families can give back this summer

Why We Wrote This

These days, many people looking to volunteer want to know how to include their families while they make a difference. So in this piece, a philanthropy expert shares her insights.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

This column is part of an occasional series about how you, too, can make a difference. It is written by the head of our partner organization UniversalGiving, which helps people give and volunteer in more than 100 countries.

This summer, it doesn’t have to be the same camp, the same after-school program, or the same “I wasn’t organized enough to make something happen” break. Let’s find some ways to make you and your family happy – and give back. 

1. Give in an unofficial way. With “unofficial giving,” you don’t need to join a program. 

We’ve all been in situations where someone is asking for money – maybe outside the grocery store or at a stoplight. I’m not sure what your usual response is, but this summer you can take a different view. You could see it as a learning opportunity for your family. 

One important way to give is by listening. While this person might be asking for money, there might be a deeper need of the heart. Many want to share their stories.

What if your family listened? With the safety of the parents nearby and the safety of a public space, you can encourage a homeless person to share. Where is the person from? What does he or she like to do? It starts a warm dialogue. 

To top off the conversation, it’s nice if you have a sandwich or other kind of food to offer. And if you are comfortable with it, you might decide to give money. That’s a very personal choice. 

Afterward, discuss with your family what you thought the experience would be like – and what it was like. Perhaps then as a family you can choose a topic that’s related to that situation and do some volunteer work. 

2. Volunteer – together. So many people these days volunteer. Some parents of older children are used to hearing things such as, “Dad! Mom! I’m off to Zimbabwe to do relief work.” Or maybe the destination is Brazil or Haiti. Whatever the place, the parents brace themselves and say a prayer for protection, because they know their children want to see and help the world.

But what if you join in? Instead of cheering them on as they head off, why not all cheer together on a service trip? Your family will bond, your children will respect you, and you will all grow together. 

Here are two family-friendly opportunities vetted by UniversalGiving: helping children in Tanzania reach their potential and working at a home for impoverished children in Peru.

3. Serve those close to you.When we think about service, we tend to think of distant places. But really, true service is at your doorstep every day. 

If you really listen, really observe, you’re going to see people just steps away from you who need your support. For instance, was your neighbors’ son just deployed to Afghanistan? They’re probably missing him and worried. Could you make it a goal to invite them to dinner on Tuesdays? They will probably appreciate that extended family.

4. Facilitate volunteering. This is one of my favorites, for you are helping people volunteer. Here’s a great example: Helen, a grandparent at your church, just lost her cat, her greatest companion. How can you help her? As a family, you can take her to an animal shelter where she can volunteer. 

Those pets are hurting, too, so Helen and the animals need each other. The grandma can make new feline friends. 

Yet Helen might need some encouragement. Many times, people think that what they do won’t make a difference. But it does. Also, she might need transportation.

You have a brilliant idea – and your family is a necessary part of it. Help Helen see she’s needed. Help her get there. Help ensure this happens every week. In this way, you are facilitating volunteering. This is a powerful concept.

There are so many ways abroad and in our backyards to be of service. These are family bonding moments, lessons learned, positive experiences that build your family values and history. Enjoy serving! 

• Pamela Hawley is the founder and CEO of UniversalGiving. She is a recipient of the Jefferson Award – the Nobel Prize of community service. She also writes the blog “Living and Giving” at

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