The Subscription Box That Teaches Kids to Do Good

What is a liberal, atheist parent to do if you want to raise volunteers?

Jessica Jackley, the founder of Alltruists.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

The Subscription Box That Teaches Kids to Do Good

What is a liberal, atheist parent to do if you want to raise volunteers?

Jessica Jackley, the founder of Alltruists.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

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Like all fathers, what I want for Father’s Day is to be lied to. I want my 12-year-old son, Laszlo, to make me a card telling me that I instilled values in him. Preferably with a drawing of me doing something noble, such as solving the conflict in the Middle East, though I’m not exactly sure how he’d draw that. I’m also not sure how I would have instilled those values.

One of the main things I failed to instill in him is the habit of volunteering. I have been told that many people do this through organized religion, often by joining a church. Unfortunately, we are liberal, atheist cosmopolitans. We’re the kind of people who occasionally go to a protest, discover that it’s crowded, head home, stop at a new place for vegan tacos and feel good about ourselves, but not quite as good as we wanted to.

What Laszlo and I need for help on the spirituality front, Jessica Jackley believes, is the same thing that helped us acquire beauty products, shaving supplies, underwear and our inability to measure our own recipe ingredients: a subscription box.

After a three-month virtual program at the Silicon Valley start-up accelerator Y Combinator (which launched Airbnb, DoorDash, Instacart, Coinbase, Twitch and Reddit), Ms. Jackley raised $1.25 million for Alltruists, a subscription service she started this month that aims to make me a better parent, and, more important, feel like one.

She’s joining the market for deconstructing religion that would impress Friedrich Nietzsche. I’m already spending each night meditating with Laszlo via the Headspace app, which gamifies our path to enlightenment. (Current run streak: 25 days; total time meditated: 30 hours; average duration: seven minutes. Total days without mentioning meditation in conversation: zero.) I’ve also considered a subscription box called Days United that helps Jewish, Chinese and Indian families celebrate a variety of holidays. (I don’t know much about Lag Ba’Omer, but I’m interested now that I know it can involve making s’mores.)

Each of Ms. Jackley’s monthly $50 boxes includes a booklet, activity and volunteer project connected to one of the world’s big problems, or at least the biggest problems for my liberal, atheist cosmopolitan demographic and their 4- to 12-year-old children. (Full disclosure: Ms. Jackley and I know each other socially.)

The first box she’s sending out is about homelessness and instructs kids to glue together a house of mini cinder blocks to help them understand how many people live. Then they make a beaded keychain to send to a family who’s getting a new house, partly thanks to the $5 donation voucher, included in the box, to one of three housing organizations the kids can choose from online. Boxes in the following months will focus on hunger, climate change and food waste.

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An Alltruists subscription box with kid-friendly volunteer projects for families.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

Ms. Jackley knows how hard it is to figure out spirituality as a parent. In fact, she’s learned that lesson four times, as a mom to 9-year-old twin boys, a 6-year-old boy and a 16-month-old girl. She used to have clearer ideas. After her family moved while she was in high school, Ms. Jackley joined an evangelical church, mostly for social reasons. She quickly got heavily involved.

After being invited to the National Prayer Breakfast as the student president of Bucknell University, she became one of the original eight college graduates who lived together in Washington, D.C., as the youth outlet of “The Family,” a Christian organization then led by Douglas Coe. The group’s rigid and insular practices were described in Jeff Sharlet’s book “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.”

From there she moved to California, co-founded the microlending charity Kiva.org with her then-husband and got an M.B.A. from Stanford. After a divorce in 2008, Ms. Jackley left evangelicalism. In 2011, she married Reza Aslan, a Muslim and a religious studies scholar (who had also been an evangelical Christian for a while). Mr. Aslan is often on cable news, calmly explaining Islam to sometimes hostile audiences. He wrote a book about Jesus and immersed himself in fringe religions for his CNN show, “Believer.”

Though they bring their children to church in Pasadena, they also wanted to give them a broad religious literacy. So in 2018, they took a trip around the world in 80-ish days, visiting Jesus’s tomb in Jerusalem, participating in a Zen tea ceremony in Kyoto and meeting with a leprechaun whisperer in Ireland. They wanted other families to gain the same insights, but they knew their trip wasn’t the kind of thing most people could afford to do, or wanted to do.

When they came back, they started what they called “Home Church,” an hour on Sundays when the whole family would sing, pray and read a religious story. This, Ms. Jackley figured, was something she could sell to the spiritually curious, a potentially huge market: In 2020, for the first time, Gallup found that fewer than 50 percent of Americans belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 70 percent in 1999.

She focused on 10 major religions and planned to explore aspects of each in a weekly newsletter, which she then tested with families in her neighborhood. “It turned out people have a lot of sensitivity about religion. I didn’t know. I’m married to Reza,” she said.

She also learned is that while kids don’t want to sit through the story of Noah, they’re happy to build a tiny ark full of adorable animals. The parents, meanwhile, didn’t even want the ark; they didn’t want the religious instruction at all. They wanted instructions on how to be a better person. “There hasn’t been a lot of innovation on volunteerism,” Ms. Jackley says.

She read a Stanford survey that said that while 90 percent of people want to volunteer, 25 percent said they don’t because no one asked them to. “I felt like, ‘C’mon! The world is asking you,” she said.

Still, Ms. Jackley knew that most of her past volunteer work had been organized by her church. And it was challenging to figure out what parents might feel comfortable doing — or even permitted to do — with children.

Solving a societal problem by buying something you do from home might seem shallow, but it struck the parents in Ms. Jackley’s circle as better than just posting about societal problems or doing nothing at all.

Alltruists investor Randi Zuckerberg, mother of three, former director of market development for her brother’s company, Facebook, and founder of a children’s media company, said that she had been looking for more to do with her children besides the one sleepover they did in a men’s shelter, the few times they worked in a soup kitchen and the very surprising number of times they rescued wounded Upper West Side pigeons.

“Having been on the front lines of Facebook, I’m a huge advocate of using social media to communicate your passions. But a lot of people think that’s all they have to do,” Ms. Zuckerberg said. “Any family that buys this box has moved past slacktivism.”

Adam Grant, a professor of organizational psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said that he invested in Alltruists because he saw too much parenting advice focused on raising high-achieving kids. “Getting kids thinking about other people is something we could use a little more of,” he said.

He cited a Harvard School of Education survey in which 90 percent of parents said having their children learn to be caring was one of their top priorities. But the parents were doing a poor job communicating that: 81 percent of those kids said their parents valued both achievement and happiness over caring.

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Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School, invested in Alltruists with the hope of teaching children to think beyond their own needs.Credit…Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images

“Your kids come home from school, it’s ‘How did the test go? Did you score a goal in the soccer game?’ We don’t ask, ‘Did you help a kid this week?’ Maybe Alltruists is a way of closing that gap a little bit,” Mr. Grant said.

When Ms. Jackley dropped off the box at my house, Laszlo wanted to open it right away. This was partly because he wants to open everything up right away, and partly because he knew that he was the very first kid to get one.

But he stayed interested until he finished the projects and read the booklets, which took two hours. It was a surprisingly joyful bonding experience for both of us, a combination of activity, discussion and gratitude. The box was one of the best Father’s Day gifts I’d ever gotten. Which made sense, since I was the one who got it.

He liked that the booklet addressed his questions about homelessness, and he liked building that little house. But what he really liked was making the keychain. “The thing where we send them something is amazing,” he said. “You feel like you’re welcoming them to their house at the same time as paying for one-millionth of their house.” He even added his $10 allowance to the $5 donation. And $100 of my money.

Compared with violin lessons and tutors, this was a pretty reasonable price for teaching him something.

Which was Ms. Jackley’s goal. “At the end of this, your kid would say, ‘We volunteer.’ They’d use that verb tense. Not ‘We once did this one thing.'”

We are now a family that says we volunteer. In fact, we’ve got a volunteer streak of one month, total volunteer time of two hours and total days of not bragging about it very publicly zero.

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