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 volunteer 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 are interested in helping with, such as chaperoning field trips, assisting with the 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 much, but if you engage enough parents, those commitments 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 across 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.”

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When VanHoose was recruited to the PTSO board, 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 volunteer pledge program, which asks parents to volunteer for two hours during the school year. Out of 485 families, more than 280 parents filled out the pledge, indicating their areas of interest and availability. When a teacher needs volunteers or the PTSO needs help with fundraisers and school events, an email goes out to everyone 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 run more smoothly and teachers are more likely to seek volunteers for their classrooms.

How Volunteer Recruitment Pledge Programs Work

Effective programs keep a record of each pledge, track volunteer hours, and recognize parents once they’ve met their pledges.

Keeping a record of each pledge
At Humphrey Elementary in Chandler, Ariz., the PTO included the pledge in an information packet sent to parents during 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 after that. “We’ll take volunteers whenever we can get them,” says PTO copresident Sara Nakai.

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
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 inviting the parent to continue volunteering. Other groups choose not to track the hours closely, forgoing the hassle and trusting that parents will honor the spirit of the pledge.

To track volunteer hours, you need a tool, such as a spreadsheet, to manage the process. 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, which are then input into the spreadsheet manually, or to have a shared app or spreadsheet where volunteers can log hours themselves.

Recognizing parents who have met their pledge commitment
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. (The 2 Hour Power program materials include sample text to thank parents for pledging and for fulfilling their pledge, as well as two bulletin board templates to post parents’ names after pledging.)

Why a Volunteer Pledge Program Is Worth the Effort

While pledge programs require extra time and attention from group leaders when they’re first launched, they succeed because they don’t ask too much from the parents who sign the pledge.

Before the Humphrey Elementary PTO started using a volunteer recruitment 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. “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., a pledge program has been an invaluable tool for getting parents to the school and creating a welcoming environment. “We’re just asking parents to find three hours,” says principal Michael Almeida. He makes sure there are 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, Almeida enters parents who have fulfilled the pledge into a drawing for a restaurant gift card and movie passes.

Using a pledge program has made it easier for the Tomahawk Elementary PTO in Lynchburg, Va., to find just the right volunteer for each task. For example, when leaders 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 up parents after a brief talk during an open house, selling the 2 Hour Power 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, 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 flyer that goes home in book bags. Or consider making an electronic form with a box that parents can check off as their pledge commitment.

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.

Invite parents to keep volunteering even after they have fulfilled their commitment, but don’t be pushy.


2 Hour Power: A Simple Volunteer Recruitment Solution

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 for the whole year, parent groups can relieve that fear.

PTO Today’s 2 Hour Power volunteer pledge program provides everything you need to launch and run your own program. It’s free, easy to use, and easy to adapt to your school. Materials include a checklist to set up your own pledge program, tools to promote it to parents, and options for saying thank-you afterward (so they’ll want to volunteer again).

Originally posted in 2010 and updated regularly. 2 Hour Power™ is a trademark of School Family Media®.