Singled Out: volunteering as single parents

The Fundraising Directory posted the question: “Should single parents be expected to volunteer?”

You got back to us with your thoughts on the Facebook page.

Put the words “single parents” and “volunteering” in the same sentence and the room may get tenser than a meeting between Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull.  Many single parents feel targeted or guilt-ridden for not volunteering. Parents who do volunteer can resent those who don’t. Here at the Fundraising Directory, we believe that schools, charities and clubs have an untapped resource on their hands … if only organisations knew how to include the single parent volunteer. We also believe that instead of arguing about whether we should expect single parents to volunteer, let’s accept that volunteering is not a realistic option for some parents. Health problems, being extremely time or money poor – all these things make it hard, if not impossible, to muster up the energy to do any extra activities. With the help of our trusty Facebook panel, we’ve come up with some great solutions for a touchy issue.

While lots of people think of themselves as short on time and money, single parent families are more likely to fit into this category. By definition, single parents are often doing all the work to care and provide for children without a partner to share the burden. Melbourne University found that just under a quarter of all children from single parent families lived in poverty (compared with under 8% of kids in two parent homes). Keeping this fact in mind, with sensitivity and some practical adjustments, your organisation may enjoy the benefits of extra hands and ideas.

First things First – let’s get personal

We all need to be observant in dealing with people – otherwise, we’d be offending each other left, right and centre. When recruiting any volunteers, a fundraising coordinator is better off with a personal approach. When meeting and getting to know potential volunteers, try and gather a rough idea of their responsibilities. Obviously, you’re not going to get their life story in a 5 minute chat, but many people will mention their family status in a short conversation.

You could also use a more formal survey to find out your parents ability to volunteer. A survey will give you an overall idea of your human resources. You could ask: Do you have a) time to burn; b) some time on your hands; c) time next December, possibly, if you don’t sleep? (maybe don’t ask whether they’re single, they might think you’re setting up a soccer/dating club).

By asking practical questions, you can take an inventory of your parents’ skills and resources. Include questions about meeting times, appropriate contact times, fundraising ideas and prior experience. In the process, you are mentally preparing your potential volunteers. A bonus is parents feel more appreciated when you show you are trying to understand their situation.

Be Imaginative

Reach beyond the usual kinds of volunteering activities to offer single parents some flexibility. Are there things that can be done from home? Nadine wrote that she asked for books to cover from her children’s library. Pamphlets to design, account balancing, ringing donor businesses – these are jobs that can be done from home or in a lunch hour for those who need a flexible schedule. Kerrie also suggested weeding school gardens on the weekend. Jobs could also be folded into chores that already exist. For example, everyone has to go grocery shopping. Fruit duty for Saturday sports could mean only remembering to buy an extra bag of oranges. For fundraising coordinators, try to reserve these more flexible tasks for those who are on a strict timetable.

Giving Limited Tasks

Sometimes people feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done. The Fundraising Directory has published a “Just One Thing” letter template. It is designed to encourage parents to realise that even a small gift of time or money can really contribute to your fundraiser. It also lets people know that if they put their name down, they won’t be spending the next ten years-worth of Sundays umpiring netball games (though if they want to…). Remember when people volunteer time it is important to keep to the promised schedule. If an event is supposed to finish at 7pm, don’t finish at 8pm.  Single parents need to be confident they won’t risk paying the babysitter overtime.

Meet People Halfway

While your organisation has probably been running well with the routines you have, single parent volunteers are more likely to play a substantial role if they can fit activities into their schedule. This might mean shaking up well-established habits like holding Tuesday night meetings, when single parents need to be at home cooking dinner, or supervising homework. Be open to weekend scheduling or running tele or video conferencing for the people who can’t make it.  Platforms like Skype can be a godsend for the time poor/I can’t find a babysitter/I already changed into my pyjamas and forgot the meeting was on – volunteers.

Adequate childcare is another obstacle for people who would like to give time. You could set up a separate area for everyone’s children and organise supervision. Although this is yet another task, imagine if having a babysitting option allowed 5 extra people to attend your committee meetings. Also, building childcare into the activity can allow single parents to volunteer. Anlina tells us that parents who come to her local toy library as volunteer supervisors bring their own children to play.

Anlina also mentioned that the volunteers enjoyed chatting with other adults. The advantages of volunteering aren’t just for the organisation. Michelle and Lynn listed some benefits for the volunteer – making friends and building a larger support network, developing social or potential employment skills, connecting with your kids and setting them a good example. Here are some suggestions to help you get involved:

Being Proactive

Maybe the school or sports club is only asking for volunteers during times you are unavailable. But perhaps they just haven’t really thought of other things that could be done. Ask if there are things you can do at home, or in a time slot that suits you.  If they are smart they’ll have a list of ways you can help outside of work hours and you’ll be able to pick something off the list that suits you.

Asking for Help

Some people may have willing childcare outside the immediate family. Chayne makes the point that her volunteering was possible because of her “amazing family and friends”. Adriana recommends reaching out to others. Unfortunately, this only works for single parents with extended family or friends who are able and willing to help.

One Last Thing

Many contributors to the Facebook discussion made the point that you can’t understand a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. For schools and clubs, if someone is reluctant to volunteer, don’t push. They may have more on their plate than you realise. Parents might want to help, but have no time or energy. Guilt does not help anyone – and maybe that person will help you this time, but avoid you for the rest of their life.

Equally, for single parents, it is ok to say no. Melinda mentioned that the family is a parent’s priority, and the health of the parent comes before volunteering activities. Someone else may jump in, or even if they don’t, perhaps the task is better not happening at all. It is no good helping at school every week if you go home and get cranky at your kids. Or even worse, knowing that it was helping at the 2015 Father’s Day stall that really tipped you over the edge. As in all things in life, you can only do what you can do. Even if you can help, don’t be afraid to refuse tasks that aren’t possible.

People like to feel part of something bigger – we all enjoy having a role and being appreciated for our work. With understanding and some creative thinking, volunteering is possible for people with all sorts of schedules. Thanks to everyone who contributed to the Facebook discussion, as well as to 97.3 FM for the original question.

Original article published 9 August, 2018

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