A common lament among PTO leaders is “We just can’t get volunteers.” And while it certainly might feel that way to an overcommitted, overtired board, it’s probably not completely accurate. By redefining your idea of a volunteer and changing how you respond to “I’d love to, but,...” you can tap into a wider group of parents than you might have thought were available and accomplish more than you imagined. Here are nine steps to build your volunteer base and enlist an army of unstoppable parents.

1. Set Expectations—Your Own

You’ve made the choice to serve on the PTO and you’ve thrown yourself into the role. Not everyone is going to share your energy and enthusiasm, and that’s OK. Accept that other parents may not be willing or able to log the hours you do, and be appreciative of the time they can give. The last thing you want is to send the message that a mom doesn’t care about her child because she can’t staff the book fair. Maybe she can make reminder calls or provide supplies for the event. Remember, most people start small before taking on the big tasks. The person who volunteers an hour this time may end up running the entire event in the future.

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2. Prioritize the Relationship Over the Transaction

When I was PTO president, my to do list was always growing and I wanted to get things done as quickly and painlessly as possible. When a volunteer turned me down, I’d quickly move on to the next person who might complete the task when I should have been taking time to nurture the relationship. While my approach seemed efficient, it probably hurt me in the long run. “I really do think it’s about relationships,” says Haleh Rabizadeh Resnick, immediate past president of the Kellman Brown Academy PTG in Voorhees, N.J. “People get caught up in ‘I have to get an event done and I need to line these people up,’ but the reality is you have to create a relationship and find out where people are coming from.” Rabizadeh Resnick says that those relationships will pay off and that the person who says no this time might be the one who says yes the next time you’re looking for help.

3. Play to People’s Strengths

One year I decided to turn our school directory into a moneymaker by selling ad space in the booklet to local businesses. I divided up the merchants in town among different members of the board and set a deadline for selling the ads. When the deadline arrived, I was the only one who had sold anything. My mistake: assuming everyone was comfortable selling door to door. Frustrated, I decided I would have to complete the whole project myself, and I spent hours trying to lay out the booklet on my computer—something I had no idea how to do. The next year, the new board decided not to sell ads after hearing that the project hadn’t been successful. If I had slowed down at the beginning of the project and asked the other board members whether and how they wanted to be involved—selling, doing the graphics, entering the data—we would have been successful. And just maybe the $500 I raised that year would have grown to $1,000 the next.

4. Think Positive

Rabizadeh Resnick says that many PTO leaders come from a negative place when asking for volunteers. I see this every month at my son’s school when the Bingo Night coordinator stands up and practically begs for volunteers by telling the parents in attendance that “it’s hard to get help” and that volunteering “is really not that bad.” Rabizadeh Resnick says pleas like that actually send the message “Don’t help me.” Instead, emphasize the positive aspects of volunteering—the fun everyone has when they pitch in for a common cause, the chance to connect in new ways with the school, and, of course, the good example parents set for their children when they give their time to the PTO.

5. Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

“A lot of parent-teacher groups have a very small group of people who volunteer. Typically, it’s a group of friends who come and ask their friends to volunteer, and that’s it,” Rabizadeh Resnick says. “But you need to reach out and involve people you don’t know, too.” Look for ways to widen your circle of volunteers by connecting with those who typically don’t make it to meetings or who aren’t free to help out during the day. Draw in these parents by giving them plenty of options for volunteering, including assignments they can do on their own schedule from home.

6. Go High-tech

Shaun Dakin, a member of the PTO and lead room parent at Thomas Jefferson Elementary in Falls Church, Va., says technology makes it easier for people to say yes to volunteer assignments. “I need to get parents’ attention and time,” Dakin says. Websites like VolunteerSpot allow him to create a calendar where parents can sign up well in advance for tasks and events. PTO Today's Volunteer Manager is simple, web-based software that helps you find and recruit interested volunteers and track volunteers' hours quickly and easily. “There are lots of dual-income parents who work a lot and have a lot of information thrown at them. So it’s my job to let them know what assignments are available,” he says. Also, at the beginning of each school year, Dakin collects all parents’ email addresses as well as cell and home phone numbers, then uses email messages and a robocall system to send requests and reminders.

7. Tell the Truth

When my best friend asked me to be her PTO copresident at our children’s school, she promised me it wouldn’t be that hard. I didn’t believe her, but I signed on anyway. One PTO volunteer from St. Louis who prefers not to give her name says, “I was bribed at a coffee shop with a cup of coffee and the promise that most of the stuff runs itself. They lied.” In an effort to get help, it’s natural to downplay the effort required. However, if we set realistic expectations, we build trust and goodwill among the volunteer base.

8. Let Go

Rabizadeh Resnick urges PTO leaders to relinquish some control even though it can be hard to do: “Something might not be done in the way you want it done and at the pace you want it done, but the reality is 95 percent of time it’s going to be pretty good.” After all, she says, “Adults are not going to come and do a shoddy job at their kids’ event.” Leaders are more effective when they manage vs. do, and volunteers are usually more satisfied when they can take full responsibility for their assignments.

9. Say Thank-You

When my son was in 1st grade, I wanted to spend time with him during the school carnival as I’d been traveling for work and hadn’t seen much of him that week. So I said no to working any shifts during the event and I instead signed up for cleanup. At 9 p.m., after a long day of work, I was finished with the cleanup and I went home. The PTO board was standing in a group talking while I worked, and they never acknowledged my arrival or my departure. In the following PTO newsletter, they thanked all the parents who planned and staffed the event but didn’t mention the cleanup crew. I didn’t volunteer again until a new board was voted in. It wasn’t that I needed public recognition. But I did want to feel that what I did mattered. “You can’t thank people who do the smallest things enough,” says Rabizadeh Resnick. “You never know how much they may have rearranged their day to do that.”


“No” Is Just the Beginning

Salespeople are trained to believe that successful negotiations don’t start until they hear the word no. Recruiting volunteers is essentially sales—but instead of selling a product or a service, you’re selling a parent on the benefits of supporting their child’s school. So the next time you hear “I’d love to, but...no,” remember that the discussion is just beginning. Here are several things you can do to turn a no into a yes.

Get permission to ask again. “I understand you can’t do face-painting at Family Fun Night, but can I call you in the future if we need help?” Most likely the parent will say yes. And if they say no, then you’ve saved yourself time pursuing a parent who just isn’t available or interested in helping.

Offer an alternative. “Unfortunately, the cookie dough orders need to be distributed during school hours and you’re not available during the day. We often need help sending out emails at night. Would that work for you?” Keep exploring until you find a way to include a parent who just may be looking for a way to get involved.

Remember the relationship. “Yes, I can imagine you’re pressed for time; I haven’t seen you at pickup. Are you busy in the afternoons?” Perhaps you’ll discover that the parent does freelance PR in the afternoons and could easily write the monthly newsletters or submit press releases to local news outlets.