How to Start a Babysitting Co-op | Part 1

So a babysitting co-op sounds good to you, but there is none in your area.  Why not just start one yourself?

How to Start a Babysitting Co-op

The problem is it’s hard to find free advice that really gives you the tools you need to start a babysitting co-op.  Who wants to re-invent the wheel when you can copy what other successful groups are doing?

I have both founded and participated in various forms of babysitting co-ops, have very rarely paid for childcare, and have made meaningful connections with some great families.  This how-to article is my gift back to the community, sharing what I’ve learned and the resources we used to make our groups run smoothly.

In this series of posts, I will guide you through the process of starting your own co-op, showing you some of the various ways babysitting co-ops can be organized and providing you with the resources you need to get your group off the ground in no time.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Define the Boundaries of Your Group

Babysitting exchanges work best within a community where some level of trust has already been established.  Will your co-op be part of your mom’s group, your place of worship, school, sports team, or apartment building?  Neighborhood-based co-ops are most successful when the area is cohesive, perhaps bound together by a town newsletter, a historic designation, or active civic association.

Another option would be to start a co-op with your circle of friends. However, friends sometimes don’t feel as comfortable with the formality of a structured co-op and might be better off arranging babysitting swaps.

Here is another version of an informal babysitting swap:  babysitting parties. In this scenario, one family hosts all the children in the group (for a movies and popcorn party or similar) while the rest of the parents get to go out.   Families rotate being hosts one or two Saturdays a month or every weekend.  This set-up works best when families have children of similar ages, as infants can require more attention than is possible with bigger groups.

Find a Partner in Crime

Even if you feel you can do all the work yourself, there are a lot of decisions involved in setting up a new group.  Consider asking someone to help you who seems equally as enthusiastic about the idea.  It’s easier and more fun to work with a friend, and she can help toss around ideas and provide moral support if issues arise.

Who Can Join?

Can anyone within your umbrella group or geographical area join?  Will you require an application or references?  Some groups limit membership to friends of current members.

My last co-op was open to anyone in our tight-knit neighborhood.  The coordinators would visit with the prospective member at his or her home, go over the rules and answer any questions. Application forms asked for contact information as well as two references. The home visit also provided an opportunity to make sure the applicant’s house was clean and safe.

Some co-ops set a cap on the number of families that can join:  I’ve seen limits anywhere from 20 to 45 families.  However, it might be easier to see how things go, and if the group should reach saturation, suspend accepting new members for a while.

Pick a Name for Your Group

Depending on the base for your group (neighborhood, playgroup, preschool, etc.), you could just add the words “Babysitting Co-op” or “Babysitting Exchange” to the end, and you’re done. For example, “The Jamesville Methodist Church Babysitting Co-op,” or the “Dorset Road Babysitting Exchange.”

Decide How You Will Track Points

There are probably as many ways to record and trade babysitting credits as there are shades of pink.  Here are just a few.

Talk with your co-founder about which method seems right for you. Alternatively, present the various options to interested families at your first meeting (but be prepared to go with the majority, which might not be your personal preference).

Web Service

Our current babysitting co-op uses a service called BabysitterExchange.com.  The advantage of an automated system is that all points and sit requests are managed by the service in a clean and mathematical way with very minimal paperwork required.  Our umbrella organization picks up the annual fee ($165), but other groups could charge dues to spread out the cost.  (BabysitterExchange.com does offer a free 60-day trial of their basic subscription with reduced options, such as a limit of 5 members and 2 requests per member per month.)

Cards and Timekeepers

The first babysitting co-op I was involved with uses colored index-sized cards (yellow for 1 hour, blue for a quarter hour).  Each card is stamped with the name of the group. (Rubber stamps can be ordered online for under $10 at places like VistaPrint or SuperiorLabels.)

The group is led by two rotating coordinators who assign secretary duties to a different member every two weeks.  The secretary is responsible for keeping track of each member’s card count and filling sit requests.  (Card counts were more relevant when this co-op used the phone to fill sits as the secretary would begin by calling the people with the lowest counts first.)

Here is a sample card count and contact info form that this co-op uses.  (You can find a Microsoft Word version to alter for your own purposes on my Printables page.)  The two-page form is printed on card stock and placed back-to-back in a sheet protector and filed in the secretary’s binder.  The secretary keeps tabs on everyone’s current card counts by emailing members and filling in the forms before she passes off the binder to the next secretary.

Do-It-Yourself Coupons

Another group I participated in uses carnival tickets (available at office supply stores).  Each “coupon” is worth 30 minutes of babysitting time.  Tickets can be ripped in half if necessary.  This group does not keep track of member’s points.  The coordinator takes care of registration paperwork, sending out coupons to new members, and assigning hosts for their monthly playdates.  Otherwise, all communication and details regarding sits are arranged by members themselves via a Yahoo email group.

Online Spreadsheet

Perhaps the most inexpensive method and clutter-free method is to create a chart in a free document sharing service like Google Docs.  While this requires some computer savvy, no one has to pass out cards or pay a service.  Use the honor system and let everyone update their points themselves after a sit is completed, or ask someone to act as timekeeper and require members to go through him to update their hours.

Here is a sample spreadsheet used by a small babysitting co-op in Vermont.  This group is comprised of four families who are friends and live on the same road.  As you can see, they are quite active and are able to fulfill most of their sitting needs within the group.

When a sit has been completed, the sitter goes into the spreadsheet and logs hours in her “earn” column (and the same amount in the host’s “use” column).  Each family’s total points are then automatically calculated (the spreadsheet has some built-in formulas).  They also have a column for notes, where sitters jot down a little something about what they did together, which I think is cute and contributes to the sense of familiarity in the group.

If you would like a copy this spreadsheet for your group, simply click File, once you are in the spreadsheet, and then Download As.

How Much are Points Worth?

Like methods for tracking points, options for deciding the value of points are all over the map.

The group using the online spreadsheet starts out new members at zero.  Members pay 1 point per sleeping child and 2 points per awake child per hour.  If a member has -80 points, the rule is they need to sit more.  If they have 80 or more points, they need to get out more!

Another co-op starts new members with 15 hours of cards which are good no matter how many children the family has and whether the children are sleeping or not. However, they do charge double time at dinnertime (between the hours of 5:30 and 7 pm) and after 12:30 pm. The sitter also earns a bonus hour for weekend sits, and a minimum of 3 hours for Friday and Saturday nights.

The carnival ticket group gives each new member 10 hours worth of sitting per child (i.e., 30 tickets worth 1/2 hour for each child the member has).  They also charge for travel time if the sitter has to go to the host’s house (as opposed to the host dropping off her children).

The web service BabysitterExchange.com starts out each new member with 40 points, each point worth 15 minutes of babysitting per child.   As with a card system, it is impossible to get “in the hole” and leave the co-op with a negative balance.  (With a paid subscription, however, you can change the starting points, allow people to have a negative balance, and charge penalty points for cancellations.)

The disadvantage of this automated system is that there is no way to ask the system to recognize point rule variations, such as sleeping rates or add-ons such as more points for holidays. (However, point totals can be adjusted manually at the end of the sit.)  The upside is that BabysitterExchange.com is now set up for people to barter all sorts of services, including carpooling, house sitting, pet care, meal prep and much more.

Coming up in part 2 of this series:

  • Getting the word out
  • Holding an opening event
  • How to get things rolling
  • Whether to charge dues or not
  • Structured vs. unstructured co-ops
  • What’s the best way to communicate?

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In part 3, I’ll offer you sample applications, guidelines, rosters, and brochures from real babysitting co-ops that you can download and customize for your own group.

I’d love to hear about your group and how you handled the issues we’ve talked about here.

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30 comments

  • Linda Jones October 22, 2014, 1:45 pm

    I was wondering if I missed your Part 2 and Part 3 of the How to Start a Babysitting Co-op. Let me know if I am just missing the link.
    I am interested in starting up a small one and would like to get a sample of rules (very basic not too formal).
    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Amy October 22, 2014, 9:46 pm

      Hi Linda,

      I haven’t published Part 3 yet, but here is Part 2. A lot of images and media files were lost and I’m still in the process of putting back the pieces. I’m hoping to get Part 3 up in the next few months, probably January.

      Thank you,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Roger April 27, 2014, 12:28 am

    What is a single dad supposed to do? I keep reading about the moms but nothing is ever mentioned about the dads. I’m about to move back to the states from Asia with my 5 year old–I’ve raised her alone–and I don’t know where to turn. Suggestions please.

    Reply
  • Jennifer October 11, 2012, 1:58 pm

    Thanks for this excellent information. I just wanted to mention that timebanking is a concept that goes hand-in-hand with babysitting co-ops, and that if a timebank already exists in your community, you can join and take advantage of their infrastructure. The bonus is that you also gain access to a variety of other services in the timebank.

    Reply
    • Amy October 11, 2012, 9:04 pm

      Thanks for pointing this out, Jennifer. I have never been part of a time bank. Do they work well?

      Amy

      Reply
      • Jennifer October 23, 2012, 3:38 pm

        They do! I started a co-op years ago and it was great, but I would have loved to have had the basic work done for me — the timebank I run requires a background check and, of course, has all of the legal/liability issues sorted out in addition to a tracking system. The only thing that would be needed is medical release forms from each family. The benefit of a timebank would be that families could also use the time credits to access other services from members of the timebank if they chose — our timebank has pet sitting, lawn services, cooking and baking, sewing and mending, car detailing, and lots of other options.

        Reply
  • Erica February 9, 2011, 5:29 pm

    Great post! I’m a mom in a babysitting co-op myself and was frustrated with the lack of high-quality sites out there to manage co-ops. So, I created one myself. It’s called Sitting Around and will be launching next month.

    We’re going to be giving the first 500 people to sign up free membership for life. If you’re interested, you (or any of your readers) can go to http://sittingaround.com and leave your email address — when we launch, I’ll send out an invite code for free membership.

    Erica (Sitting Around founder)

    Reply
  • laurabootsy January 11, 2011, 7:22 am

    Hi. I am in a babysitting co-op in Astoria, Queens, that has been running for probably 9 years now, tho I’ve only been in it for four. We were on the brink of collapse, due to the onerousness of dealing with a paper-based accounting system, so we dragged ourselves into the 21st centuray by putting everything up on a blog (which is private, contact me if you want to see it, but here is a sample of our sit report form https://spreadsheets.google.com/viewform?authkey=CK2U6J0O&formkey=dHMxenpET09fSXFNbVpRNFBGQnpVM2c6MA#gid=0), google docs (here is our main spreadsheet: https://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=0AolCKPZRzYyadHMxenpET09fSXFNbVpRNFBGQnpVM2c&output=html) and we use 30boxes to issue sit requests. I don’t mean to brag, but we’ve reviewed most of the on-line solutions available and we decided it just worked for us better to create our own. Happy to discuss, just contact me if you have any questions.
    laurabootsy´s last post ..For People Interested in our Babysitting Co-op

    Reply
    • Amy January 18, 2011, 8:09 pm

      Hey Laura,

      I really appreciate your writing and telling me more about your babysitting co-op. I’m always interested in how other co-ops work and what systems they use.

      Again, thanks for writing in and offering to share your tips!

      Sincerely,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Amy July 22, 2010, 9:31 pm

    Hi Kat,

    Thanks so much for all your great input and enthusiasm! I agree by-lawa, or at the least guidelines, are a good idea. I need to write part 3 and get some more info up here!

    Amy

    Reply
  • Kat July 22, 2010, 8:50 pm

    Hi there,
    I’ve coordinated an extremely successful babysitting co-op for 4 years (anniversary August 7!). We average 15 members, and have had over 2,000 sits. I started it with by-laws (very important!) and emergency documents, etc. It’s a closed co-0p and you can only join by recommendation of a member and interview by 2 other members who don’t know that person. We’ve never had one issue.

    The spreadsheet you shared seems really tedious. I would suggest using some simple equations in Excel. We’re a military city, with lots of sits, but easier is better. We have never done coupons and are SO THANKFUL for that! I couldn’t imagine keeping up with more stuff. Each member has a folder and keeps all the kids information/forms/sit total sheets in it. After each sit, the points are emailed to the coordinator.

    I encourage everyone out there to do this! It’s the best thing ever. I started it when my husband was deployed and I can’t express how blessed I am! We ask members who want evening sits to swap with another member, but in 4 years, we’ve only not been able to fill 2 day sits! It really has to do with selecting the right individuals.

    And, as for a name, I just used the area we live in – Greater Randolph Area Babysitting Co-op. No one uses that, however. We go by “GRABSCO”. We’ve had 25 very happy members over the past 4 years (military city = lots of moving, so 10 of our members have left throughout the years).

    Happy co-opping, everyone!

    Reply
    • Heather Workman July 22, 2013, 4:21 pm

      Starting co-op at Lackland (trying) for fall at chapel. I’m into simple, any chance I can get a copy of form you use? Thanks

      Reply
  • Ariah Fine May 12, 2010, 4:59 pm

    Here, I’ve posted the spreadsheet again, I think anyone should be able to edit/download it themselves from this link:
    https://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=0AtLJDXrKZ1f3dHVGS0U4NkFRdWd1X1QtZHF0bEpmWUE&hl=en

    Or

    http://bit.ly/coopspreadsheet

    Reply
    • Amy May 14, 2010, 9:04 pm

      Wonderful, thank you so much Ariah! I’ll incorporate it into the main body of the article now.

      Reply
  • Molly May 12, 2010, 4:46 pm

    I’d really like a copy of the spreadsheet as well! Thanks for the great ideas!

    Reply
  • Aparna May 7, 2010, 11:22 am

    I’d love to receive a copy of your sample spreadsheet – in excel format. I hope I can start something up with a few of my firends…this has been so informative :) Thank you!

    Reply
  • Erin April 4, 2010, 12:50 pm

    I am interested in the receiving a copy of your sample spreadsheet. Thank you so much for this website. It has been very informative. I am trying to start my own coop, and so far I’ve found your website the most informative, especially on how to tally/spend points. Thank you.

    Reply
  • Christie Robertson March 31, 2010, 5:37 pm

    Thanks for the great article. My parents’ group wants to start a babysitting co-op, and I’d love to get a copy of the spreadsheet in Excel format please.

    Reply
  • ariah fine March 28, 2010, 4:52 pm

    I’m really interested in the google docs spreadsheet you posted. However, I can’t seem to figure out how to download it. Any chance you can just email it to me?

    Reply
    • Amy March 31, 2010, 9:21 am

      Hi Ariah, Thanks for letting me know about problem downloading the Google spreadsheet. Now people can leave me a comment here and I will send you a copy of the spreadsheet. Please specify if you want Excel or Open Office format.

      Reply
      • Brooke Johnson July 15, 2014, 10:39 am

        Could you send me a copy of the spreadsheet mentioned? I don’t have permission to view it. Excited to start my own babysitting co-op!

        Reply
        • Amy July 25, 2014, 10:36 am

          Dear Brooke,

          I’m sorry about the permissions issue. I think there was a problem when Google moved from Docs to Drive, but I have fixed it and you should be able to access the spreadsheet now by clicking on the link in the blog post.

          Let me know if it still doesn’t work for you.

          Good luck with your co-op!
          Amy

          Reply
  • Sis B March 9, 2010, 1:48 pm

    Thank you thank you thank you!

    This is fantastic! I can’t wait to read the other parts. I also love your website and have added you to my google reader.

    Reply

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