If you’ve ever looked around at a big event and marveled at how the same few parents are yet again doing all the work, it might be time to consider a pledge program. Pledge programs are an effective way to attract new volunteers to your PTO because they address parents’ top fear about volunteering: that they’ll be asked to commit more time than they can give.
School or PTO leaders ask parents to sign a pledge promising to volunteer a certain number of hours. The pledge typically includes a checklist where parents can state the hours they’re available and the type of activities they want to do, such as chaperoning field trips, helping with the fall carnival, or making cupcakes for the bake sale.
The key to the pledge is the small number of volunteer hours requested: usually two to five for the whole school year. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you engage enough parents, those commitments can add up to a lot of additional hands on deck. And, as many parent group leaders have found, once you get new volunteers engaged, they’ll often stick around far beyond their pledge commitment.
At schools around the country, parent groups and school leaders have found pledge programs to be transformational. “It is just a very simple way to get people involved in a manageable way,” says Beth VanHoose, PTSO president at Superstition Springs Elementary in Mesa, Ariz. “We’re building a corps of parents who keep coming back.”
Get More Parents Involved
When VanHoose was recruited to the PTSO board last school year, she knew she had to expand the group’s volunteer base. “Coming from a corporate background and knowing how important it is to have a tested process in place, a pledge program was a must,” VanHoose says.
She chose PTO Today’s 2 Hour Power pledge program, which asks parents to volunteer for two hours during the school year [see “A Simple Parent Involvement Solution”, below]. Out of 485 families, more than 280 parents have filled out the pledge, indicating their areas of interest and availability. A volunteer enters the data into a spreadsheet. When a teacher needs volunteers or the PTSO needs help with fundraisers and school events, an email goes out to everyone in the database who offered to do that type of service.
“It’s nonthreatening,” VanHoose says. “It’s email. If you can’t help, it’s OK.” Now, she says, events are running more smoothly and teachers are more likely to seek volunteers for their classroom.
How Pledge Programs Work
Effective programs keep a record of each pledge, track volunteer hours, and recognize parents once they’ve met their pledges.
At Humphrey Elementary in Chandler, Ariz., the PTO included the pledge in an information packet sent to parents over the summer. The packet contained forms that had to be returned to the school. It was easy for parents to send in the pledge form, as well. The group received 80 pledge sheets in the first wave, with more trickling in. “We’ll take volunteers whenever we can get them,” says Sara Nakai, copresident of the PTO.
As pledge forms come in, a parent enters the data into a computer file. This can be time-consuming at first, but it gets easier each year as the program gains momentum and more parents are already in the system. With a volunteer database in place, the Humphrey Elementary PTO can respond to requests for volunteers from teachers and round up volunteers for events and activities.
Tracking volunteer hours also takes effort. Some parent groups track carefully and let volunteers know when they have met their commitment. Some send a thank-you note, while others send a survey asking how the experience went and whether the parent would like to continue volunteering. Other groups choose not to track the hours closely, forgoing the hassle and trusting that their parents will honor the spirit of the pledge.
To track volunteer hours, you need a tool, such as a spreadsheet, to manage the process. (PTO Today’s Volunteer Builder software can also do the trick.) One or two volunteers need to take responsibility for the task. A common process is to have volunteer sign-in sheets at each activity or event. A designated volunteer receives the sign-in sheets and enters the data. Another option is to give volunteers an email address to send in their volunteer hours. The volunteer receives the emails and inputs the data.
Regardless of how carefully you track each parent’s volunteer contribution, it’s crucial to thank everyone who participates in your pledge program. Some parent groups hold an event at the end of the year, giving out certificates, plaques, or prizes from community sponsors and calling out each person’s name. Others send an email as soon as the parent completes his hours.
Another practice is to post the volunteers’ names in a visible location at the school, such as a main hallway. Or you can offer small gifts such as a bumper sticker or magnet celebrating the volunteer’s pledge fulfillment.
Why Pledge Programs Are Worth the Effort
While pledge programs can require extra time and attention from group leaders, they succeed because they don’t ask too much from the parents who sign pledges.
Before the Humphrey Elementary PTO started a volunteer pledge program, many parents hesitated to join the group because they didn’t want to commit as much time as they saw leaders putting in, Nakai says. Now that more parents are willing to help, the PTO responsibilities are spread out over a larger number of volunteers. As the program grows, Nakai expects the pressure to ease up on officers. “Two hours is just a really unintimidating number,” she says. “If they know they just have to do two hours, it gets them in the door.”
At Feinstein Middle School in Coventry, R.I., the Three for Me pledge program, available free to PTAs through the National PTA, has been an invaluable tool for getting parents to the school and creating a welcoming environment. “It’s simple and catchy,” says principal Michael Almeida. “We’re just asking parents to find three hours.”
Half the parents at Feinstein Middle have signed the pledge. Almeida makes sure he has a variety of meaningful volunteer opportunities to offer enthusiastic parents. Popular activities include chaperoning field trips, helping in the classroom, processing fundraising orders, and participating in career day. At the end of the school year, the principal enters parents who have fulfilled the pledge into a drawing for a restaurant gift card and movie passes.
At Abington (Pa.) Junior High School, a pledge program through the organization Project Appleseed has been “an amazing vehicle to get parents into the school,” says Spanish teacher Nicole Kazarian, who coordinates the effort with help from the staff and the PTO. (Project Appleseed has provided the program for a fee of $300 for one year.)
The first year, 77 Abington Junior High parents signed the pledge. The next year, 180 did. And this year, 250 signed. Now, when the PTO needs more help with an event, they can find volunteers in the database. When a faculty member has a classroom project, he can get the help he needs.
The pledge program has made parents aware of the range of volunteer opportunities available. Some help with the Box Tops for Education fundraiser, while others would rather volunteer in the school’s learning center or help distribute the school newspaper.
Using a pledge program has made it easier for the PTO at Tomahawk Elementary in Lynchburg, Va., to find just the right volunteer for each task. For example, when they needed a truck for the fall carnival, they turned to the database. “I had a dad basically saying, ‘Here’s my truck,’” says PTO president Barbara Rypkema. “I was so excited!”
The PTO signed parents up after a brief talk during an open house, selling the 2 Hour Power pledge program as cheaper and more rewarding than another two-hour activity, going to a movie. They collected more than 100 pledges.
When pledge programs are managed well, parents will often volunteer for more hours than they initially promised. After the dad who offered his truck helped at the carnival for two hours, Rypkema thanked him and told him he had fulfilled his pledge. “He offered to stay for another hour,” she says. “Once volunteers get there, they want to stay.”
Tips for Managing a Volunteer Pledge Program
Adapt the pledge form to reflect the volunteer opportunities available at your school. Include a range of choices to engage moms and dads, parents who work full time, and parents with more flexible schedules.
Make it easy for parents to sign the pledge and return it. At events, have a table where parents can sign and return the form on the spot. Include the pledge with every mailing and every flier that goes home in book bags.
Enter information in the database as soon as a pledge form is received so parents will get notices of volunteer opportunities right away.
Make sure new volunteers feel welcome when they arrive to help with a project or event, and let them know they are needed and appreciated. Be well-organized so that their volunteer experience is hassle-free.
Thank volunteers for their time.
Encourage parents to keep volunteering even after they have fulfilled their commitment, but don’t be pushy.
Often, parents say they don’t want to join the PTO because they see the same overworked parents doing everything. They don’t want to get sucked into a black hole of time commitment. By asking for a pledge of just two hours, PTOs can relieve that fear. Over the course of a school year, who can’t find just two hours to volunteer?
PTO Today’s 2 Hour Power Volunteer Pledge Program provides everything you need to launch and run your own pledge program. It’s free, easy to use, and easy to adapt to your school. With customizable templates and step-by-step instructions, your parent group can recruit even the most reluctant parents into the volunteer fold.
As you build your volunteer network, a small group of parents will no longer have to do all the work. Even with just two hours, you can mobilize your parents and make a huge difference in your school.
Get more information or sign up for the program at ptotoday.com/2hourpower.