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 some guidelines and documents to get your group off the ground.
I have both founded and participated in various forms of babysitting co-ops, have very rarely paid for childcare, and have made trusting connections with great families. This how-to series is my gift back to the community, sharing what I’ve learned and the resources we used to make our groups run smoothly.
Let’s start at the beginning.
What is a Babysitting Co-op?
A babysitting co-op is a group of parents who agree to exchange babysitting time. Most co-ops work on some kind of point system: you earn points when you watch someone else’s kid, and you spend points when someone watches yours.
Unlike a one-on-one babysitting swap, members are not obligated to make an even exchange with a particular member. Parents may fulfill and request sits according to their own schedule with anyone in the group. For daytime sits, children are usually brought to the sitter’s house, and at night, the sitter usually comes to the child’s house.
A babysitting co-op works best when built within an existing community: a tight-knit neighborhood or a church group, a school, apartment building, or mom’s group. Many people love the idea of having trusted adults watching their children.
A babysitting co-op can work beautifully, especially when several families are committed to being involved. The trade-off to free childcare is that you, of course, must be willing to provide free childcare for someone else. That can mean having extra kids in your house, or being away from your own family on a Saturday night.
However, watching other kids is often less of a burden than it might seem: at-home moms can transform daytime sits into a playdate; nighttime sits can be a chance to catch up on reading or movie-watching. Plus, trusting others with your children can really bring a community together: fostering friendships and a feeling of belonging.
The first step in creating your own co-op is defining your group.
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 home-owners association or historic designation.
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 Founding Partner
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. (See a copy of the application in part 3 of this series.)
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. You could go with a simple majority vote or a consensus vote, where everyone must agree before you go forward.
Cards and Timekeepers
The neighborhood-based babysitting co-op I was involved with uses colored index-sized cards (yellow for one hour, blue for a quarter hour). Each card is stamped with the name of the group.
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.)
In part three of this series, you can download the card count form that this co-op uses. 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.
The parent association babysitting co-op I’m in uses a service called BabysitterExchange.com (although there are many others). 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, but other groups could charge dues to spread out the cost.
The disadvantage of a tech-based system is that it removes the human element and tends to reduce response rates.
A preschool-based 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 members’ 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.
Another method for tracking points is to create a chart in a free document sharing service. 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, contributing to the sense of familiarity in the group.
If you would like to 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 circle-of-friends co-op 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!
The neighborhood 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 preschool co-op 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 group using 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 sites like this can be set up for people to barter all sorts of services, including carpooling, house sitting, pet care, meal prep and much more.
Will You Charge Dues?
Babysitting co-ops can be done without dues, and administratively it’s much easier without. However dues can help ease the burden on all by paying for an automated point service as well as food and drinks when it’s party time.
Depending on the size of your group, a minimal amount is often all that is necessary, such as $5 to $20 per year.
Who Will Lead the Group?
Yes, you started it, but do you want some relief sometimes? The neighborhood group has rotating quarterly coordinators, who run the group (and are paid with points), as well as rotating bi-monthly secretaries, who fill “sits” by contacting members.
The preschool co-op has a coordinator. Her job is to have new members fill out the paperwork and distribute new member’s 10 first free coupons. She also assign hosts for the monthly playdates (see part 2 for more on social events).
The parent association group I am currently involved in has a coordinator and an assistant coordinator who take year-long terms, renewable indefinitely, or changeable at the Spring quarterly meeting.
Modes of Communication
How will you correspond with each other? In the neighborhood-based co-op, finding a sitter was done by phone in this 30-year-old organization, where the secretary would call the person who had the lowest card count first. In the age of email, communicating has become quicker but, some members lament, less personal. They now distribute a roster at the mandatory monthly meeting and leave it up to each member to update addresses in her own email address book.
The preschool co-op, a decentralized causal group, uses an email list (or listserv) for all communications. If you use a website, most likely it will manage all contacts for you (automatically sending out an email to all members when someone requests a sit).
Basic building blocks in place, see part two in this series for tips on getting the word out, holding an opening event, and keeping the ball rolling.