Family volunteering is a new ‘win win’ frontier in the charity sector

Pilot project by Making Connections gives teenagers lead role in volunteering

When one Dublin mother heard about a “family volunteering” opportunity in a befriending service for older people, she thought it would be a valuable experience for her teenage daughter.

However, as a mother of five with a full-time job, Joanna Daly wondered whether she really had time to be involved herself too. But she accepted that was the price she would have to pay if her eldest child Maria (15) was to do it and, at least, the minimum commitment was only one visit a month. "I signed up for it because I thought it would be good for Maria," says Joanna, who believes getting any teenager to take up such a role "helps to put their own problems, which can be immense to them, into a bit of perspective".

However, since the two of them started this volunteering in early summer, “I have actually really benefitted, which took me by surprise”, admits Joanna. “These are people who are so vulnerable and alone.”

Family life in the Daly household in south Dublin is, typically, non-stop busy. “We’re caught up in the hubbub of too many people and you just want a moment’s peace.”


Whereas in contrast, some of the older people Joanna and Maria have met are living in “heartbreaking”, lonely circumstances.

“It is just wonderful to be able to have the opportunity to meet with these people,” says Joanna. A sentiment echoed by Maria, who says it’s nice to meet older people and hear their stories because she doesn’t have much chance to meet people of that generation – both her paternal grandparents are dead and her maternal grandparents are still in their 70s and very active.

The Dalys are taking part in a pilot project in family volunteering that is being run by the volunteer-led Making Connections organisation. “Our vision is a connected community where no one is lonely or isolated,” says its executive director Mary O’Donohoe. They provide befriending and wellbeing supports “to empower older people to stay healthy and socially connected”.

Operating primarily in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown local authority area, it has 100 volunteers connecting with about 230 people aged over 65, each of whom has been referred to the service by clinicians, such as GPs or HSE staff. Making Connections was approached about running the pilot by Volunteer Ireland, which has been involved in an European project with five other countries to promote family volunteering, co-funded by the European Union's Erasmus+ programme.

Family volunteering is really popular in the United States but we in Ireland are definitely at an earlier stage in that trend, says Amy Woods, acting chief executive of Volunteer Ireland. "Just as Covid was starting we were looking at trying to actively encourage organisations to develop roles that were very family friendly and family appropriate. Hopefully it is something we will be able to get back on to in 2022."


Voluntary work is so often spoken about as “win-win” because volunteers repeatedly say they feel they get as much, if not more, out of it than they give. Two or more family members volunteering together provides extra dimensions to what’s so often a very rewarding experience.

For parents, it is a chance to be role models in contributing to the community. Involvement in volunteering by a parent/guardian was linked to greater prosocial action among adolescents, in research on "Empathy, Social Values, and Civic Behaviour Among Early Adolescents in Ireland", published in 2019 by the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway.

Family members can also get to spend precious time together while helping others, thereby bridging the generation gap both within a household and within the community, when youngsters these days spend so much of their time with their own age group. It can also propel families out of their accustomed social circles.

Volunteering can be a real “eye-opening” experience for teenagers, says Woods. It also gives them a chance to learn practical skills and to have fun. However, for organisations, it can be extra work to take on somebody under 16, she acknowledges.

There are opportunities on the national volunteering database ( with no age restrictions. But if a family is interested in another particular cause, it would be worth asking, she suggests, if the relevant organisation is open to involving younger children, particularly where a parent is available to volunteer in tandem – depending on the suitability of the role of course.

Woods recalls the case of a 15-year-old girl who wanted to continue volunteering in a charity shop after doing a stint there through a transition-year programme. But, like most of that sector, they had a minimum age of 16. However, after her mother also volunteered, the younger teenager was able to keep up the role and it was something they were able to do together.


Informal feedback on the pilot project at Making Connections indicates there have been huge benefits both for the older people and for the families, reports O’Donohue. What’s key, she believes, in that they have designed the programme to give teenagers the lead role.

“They are not just tagging along,” she says. As adults we are used to taking over, but in this case the younger people are at the centre of the engagement with the older person.

The organisation looks for specific needs, interests or activities through which social interaction can be channelled. For one family during the summer, doing garden clearance at an older person’s home was that channel.

Successive lockdowns for Covid-19 have caused a huge drop in confidence among the older people on Making Connections’ books. But they report that receiving the attention of young people is a big boost to their confidence – and that works the other way too. “Some teenagers say it’s like stepping into another world and they are amazed how much they’re enjoying the company of older people, which is lovely,” says O’Donohoe.

The organisation likes to focus on the contribution of the older person too when matching volunteers, “so it’s not a one-sided thing, it’s mutual benefit”. They knew of a brilliant knitter and matched her with a family where there was a teenager keen to learn to knit.

Although the pilot is yet to be formally evaluated, some of the eight families taking part have talked about it strengthening family ties, as they’re doing something together outside the normal routine, says O’Donohoe. They have also indicated their intention to keep on volunteering when this experimental phase is over.

It’s a win-win for the families and the older people, O’Donohoe asserts, but to manage it with the necessary compliance is time-consuming and needs extra resources. So, unfortunately, she feels Making Connections could develop a fully-fledged family volunteering programme on foot of the pilot only if extra funding became available.

It’s a new frontier, she adds, if any corporate sponsors are interested in exploring it.

Read: Volunteering options for the new year