The dirty little secret of parent group leadership, a secret that stays hidden behind countless welcome letters home from parent group leaders (and even countless magazine columns about parent involvement), is that new volunteers can be a royal pain in the rear end.
There. I said it.
You and your fellow leaders are really busy. Who has time to explain those basic details to the newbie, details that your core volunteers know so well: Where do I sign in? What’s our policy for check disbursements or expense reimbursements? How do we connect with janitorial staff to make sure the building is open at the right time? Where do we keep the coffee cups?
Not to mention the fact that relying on a newbie is a leap of faith. Will this new volunteer be reliable? Does she meet deadlines and commitments? Is he a complete cuckoo?
When push comes to shove, it’s far easier and far less risky to rely on one of your old faithful “regulars” than it is to open up and count on a new face. And that’s one of the reasons why, in many groups, three or six or eight old-timers do 90 percent of the work.
Sure, it’s hard to get new help. I’m sure that dozens and dozens of parents aren’t knocking down your door with free time to spare. But could your leadership’s subtle aversion to counting on new help be part of the problem, too?
If you take a close look at the past year in your parent group, I bet you’ll find instances where you could have reached out and welcomed new help but didn’t. Most often, it happens when a deadline is looming and the work and risk of reaching out to newcomers is magnified. If the auction is next week and you’re short on donations, you probably don’t have time to find the newcomer, explain the basics of how your PTO or project works, and get her moving on execution. Furthermore, if you only have a week, then you can’t afford to work with a less-than-trusted volunteer. What if she doesn’t come through?
So what do you do? My guess: One of your core leaders takes on the task and gets it done. Project completed? Yes. Involvement increased and parent group leadership strengthened? No.
You and your fellow leaders have to acknowledge this sneaky, though completely understandable, habit and purposefully combat it. How many parents answered a survey you sent out or stopped by at your information table at open house this fall? You need to make sure that everyone who says they’d like to help is personally asked to help.
Put some systems in place. Start planning projects a month earlier so that you can have the time to identify, invite, and train newcomers on the project. Use a software program to keep track of which parents have expressed interest in helping and which parents have been contacted to help. When you can, team old reliables with newcomers to make the job easier for both.
It’s easy to say “We’d love more help.” It takes work to actually identify and use the help that’s available.