Children, Giving and Volunteering

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Christopher Einolf, Northern Illinois University and NVSQ author

When my daughter was born twelve years ago, my whole life changed overnight: gone were the days of slowly cooked meals, relaxing on Saturday afternoons, and going out at every weekend with friends. Time became very scarce, with long sleepless nights, loads of laundry, cooking and cleaning. Just getting to work on time was a challenge; doing things outside of work seemed impossible. Expenses went up too, with doctor bills, baby furniture, clothes, and car seats.

A new baby is a wonderful thing, but a new baby places huge demands on parents’ resources of money and time. How does the arrival of a baby affect a parent’s charitable giving and volunteering? And what happens when the baby grows older – does parents’ giving and volunteering change again? These questions were the subject of my recent NVSQ article, “Parents’ charitable giving and volunteering: Are they influenced by their children’s ages and life transitions? Evidence from a longitudinal study in the United States.” What was new about this study was its use of longitudinal data, or data collected from the same people every other year for a period of nine years. With these data, I could compare parents’ giving and volunteering before a baby was born with their giving and volunteering afterward. Similarly, I could see what happened when their oldest child reached the age to enter preschool, elementary school, middle school, and high school. I could also see what happened when the youngest child turned eighteen and left parents with an empty nest.

Parents of newborns decreased their giving to some types of charities. New parents were less likely to start volunteering and were more likely to quit volunteering than a comparison group of people who did not have children. I expected this negative “baby effect” to go away once children got a little older and entered preschool, and it did go away for charitable giving – parents gave more money to some types of charities once their oldest child turned two. For volunteering, the negative effect of young children remained, but only on mothers – young children had no discernable effect on fathers’ volunteering. Parents’ charitable giving increased when their oldest child reached elementary school, but I was surprised to find that their volunteering did not increase. School-aged children take less time to care for than young children, and school-aged children bring parents into social networks where they are likely to be asked to give and volunteer – through parent-teacher organizations, recreational groups, sports, and religious education. But the increase in volunteering did not occur with the oldest child entering elementary school. Instead, volunteering went up when the oldest child reached middle school, and increased further when the oldest child entered high school. Charitable giving went up with both of these transitions as well. When the youngest child turned eighteen, leaving parents with an “empty nest,” parents gave less time and money to child-related charities. With charitable giving, there was a substitution effect, as parents switched their charitable giving from child-related causes to health and environmental charities. For volunteering, there was no such substitution effect; empty-nesters just volunteered less.

So what are the takeaways for practitioners? Well, whether you are a development officer or volunteer manager, being aware of your supporters’ family situation can help you know how to work with them. Children have a mostly positive effect on charitable giving, with decreases occurring only when a couple has a new baby; once their children enter preschool, giving goes up, and continues to go up as children get older. While children bring many expenses, they involve parents in social networks where charitable giving is expected. Do not be afraid to ask parents to give to charity; despite the expense of their children, the data show that people are more generous after becoming parents than they were before.
In regards to volunteering, be aware that young children (newborns through elementary school) decrease volunteering while older children (middle through high school) increase it. Somewhat surprisingly, the positive effects of volunteering are especially strong for fathers. Many nonprofits have more female than male volunteers; recruiting fathers might be a good way to get more male volunteers.

Featured article: Einolf, C. J. (2017). Parents’ charitable giving and volunteering: Are they influenced by their children’s ages and life transitions? Evidence from a longitudinal study in the United States. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, doi: 10.1177/0899764017737870.

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