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When writing a check just isn't enough
Volunteer? It's so much easier to send money. But getting the kids involved can change everything.
November 30, 2005: 3:36 PM EST
By Donna Rosato, MONEY Magazine
The Bergquist kids at work
The Bergquist kids at work
The Bergquist family
The Bergquist family

NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - On Christmas Eve of 2004, the Bergquist kids (Courtney, Brittany and Robbie, now 19, 14 and 13, respectively) stayed up until 4 a.m. at their home in Norwell, Mass. But it wasn't visions of sugarplums that kept them awake.

The siblings were answering e-mails and stamping hundreds of telephone calling cards with a logo for Cellphones for Soldiers, the charity their family had started earlier that year.

It was an early Christmas gift for their parents, public school teachers Gail and Bob, so the family could take the holiday off and just celebrate together.

For the past two years, the Bergquists have spent most holidays -- not to mention weekends and even vacations -- working for their charity. They collect used cell phones, sell them to recyclers, and then use the proceeds to purchase prepaid calling cards for soldiers stationed abroad.

So far they've raised more than $800,000 and distributed nearly 40,000 calling cards to soldiers in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.

They do it for the reasons most people volunteer: They believe in the cause and find that donating their labor is more rewarding than just donating dollars. But what keeps them so incredibly devoted to the charity is what it has done for their family. "It's brought us together," says Gail, 49, a high school special-education teacher, "giving us a common goal that we all care about."

Like the Bergquists, you too may be eager to do something more this season than write a check to your favorite cause. But between your job and the kids, the running and the driving and the working, you can't see how you'd find the time.

Or the energy. As for getting the kids in on the act, well, most days you can't even get them to clean their rooms -- how could you possibly persuade them to do good unto others, and with you for company?

Actually, as the following steps show, it's easier than you think.

Find the Right Fit

When you're donating money to charity, your priority is to choose a nonprofit that will use your dollars wisely. When you're giving time, the key is to find an organization with which you can really make a difference without giving up the rest of your life.

If you sign up with a big national charity like the American Cancer Society or the Red Cross, you'll find it easier to set limits on your time, since these groups attract many volunteers and have a sizable paid staff as well. On the other hand, if you're hoping to have a greater impact, you may prefer a smaller, more local organization.

Once you've identified a group you'd like to work with, try to carve out a role that suits your skills and interests. "Build off something you like to do or would like to try," says Cindy Scherer, who heads youth and family outreach at the Points of Light Foundation, which promotes volunteering.

Many nonprofits, for example, have a crying need for IT expertise and financial management. Or maybe you'd prefer to get away from your day job and indulge a hobby instead. If you love the arts, for instance, conduct tours at a local museum; if you play an instrument, give a concert for seniors at a nearby nursing home.

Or use a volunteer stint to hone your career skills by, say, running a marketing campaign for the charity or signing up corporate sponsors.

Start Small

Look for simple, limited ways to weave volunteering into your life at first, so you get a feel for what works best for you, says Jenny Friedman, author of The Busy Family's Guide to Volunteering.

She suggests starting with a one-time activity, like preparing a meal at a homeless shelter, or a task that doesn't involve tons of effort, such as picking up extra nonperishable food when you grocery shop and delivering it to a local food pantry. You can always build up to a bigger commitment.

The Bergquists, for example, didn't set out to found a charity. The kids just wanted to raise money to help a single soldier who had run up a $7,624 cell-phone bill while stationed in Iraq. After hearing his story on the news, Brittany and Robbie emptied their piggy banks, collected money from friends and held a car wash that raised nearly $1,000.

When the kids' efforts sparked local media coverage, the Bergquists were inundated with inquiries from people wanting to make donations, and they decided to channel that good will into their home-grown charity. "We had absolutely no idea how big this was going to get," says Bob, 58, a seventh-grade science teacher.

Make It a Family Affair

How do you motivate your children to join your volunteer efforts? The same way you get them to do almost anything else: Let them think the idea comes from them.

Rather than pushing your kids to work for a charity you've chosen, talk to them about the causes that interest them and the volunteer activities they think might be fun, such as coaching disadvantaged kids in soccer or softball.

Then figure out a role you might play in the charitable work they want to do. The inspiration for Cellphones for Soldiers, for example, came from Robbie and Brittany, the youngest members of the Bergquist family. And as the organization got bigger, the family members chose the roles that best suited their skills: Robbie and Brittany do mailings, Courtney runs a website (cellphonesforsoldiers.com) and everyone attends fund raisers and deployments to give the calling cards to soldiers headed overseas. "The soldiers are working for us, so it makes me feel good to pitch in a little bit to help them," says Robbie. "Besides, it's fun."

Reap the Tax Benefits

Unlike money you give to a cause, the time you donate to a charity is not tax deductible, says Mark Joseph, a C.P.A. and certified financial planner in Reston, Va. But you can write off a portion of any costs you incur. If you drive your own car while volunteering, for example, you can deduct 14 a mile or the actual cost of gas, plus tolls and parking. If you're not reimbursed for supplies you buy, those count as a charitable deduction too. Just be sure to keep receipts documenting what you've spent.

Understand Your Limits

The biggest problem could stem from your own good intentions. When you believe deeply in a cause, you may feel guilty saying no to requests, even if you're feeling overwhelmed. That's especially true if your kids are involved with the charity too.

"Parents want to be good role models and don't want to seem like they're shirking responsibility," says Friedman. "But it's also a valuable lesson for your kids when you show them how to set limits."

The Bergquists, in fact, realize they may have become victims of their own charitable success.

"Every waking moment we're not working is spent on Cellphones for Soldiers," says Bob, an avid golfer who has played just once in the past two years.

Gail is up till 11 p.m. most nights answering e-mails. The kids have had to cut back on sports and playdates.

So the family has decided that they need help. They hired a bookkeeper recently to handle the financial paperwork and may look for an executive director to deal with other administrative tasks. Their hope is that by relying on others to maintain the business end, they can concentrate on their greater goal: to raise $9 million for soldiers in the next five years.

The Bergquists are confident they can do it. "We've learned never to underestimate what a small group of motivated people can do," says Bob.

5 Tips: Charity for the holidays  Top of page

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