Many parent group leaders have the basics of volunteer recruitment covered. Send email? Check. Print newsletter articles? Check. Have current board members, teachers, and principals ask others to volunteer? Check. Check. Check. If you’ve done all these things and are still struggling to recruit volunteers, you may need a different approach.
Start by thinking about all the groups who are invested in a students’ education—parents (who may be married, divorced, single parents, or stepparents) as well as grand-parents and volunteers in the community—they all want the school to be the best it can be. But for many of these people, involvement with school starts and ends with the bus stop or front door. If they aren’t reading school newsletters or attending your PTO meetings, they may not know much about what your group does, what the school needs, or how they can help. To reach them, it’s important to send messages that speak to them and think carefully about the opportunities you provide for them to get involved.
Lisa Hutter knew from experience that working parents could have a difficult time connecting with their children’s schools. “I was a working mom and couldn’t attend the daytime meetings,” she says. “I felt like it was hard to follow what was happening at school.”
In 2012, she formed a working parents committee for the Byram Hills PTSA in Armonk, N.Y., making sure the first program would provide valuable information and be at a time working parents could attend.
“Because many of the PTSA events took place during the day, I decided to hold our first event in the evening, at a local supermarket’s upstairs bar area. We asked the superintendent to attend and over 65 parents showed up,” Hutter says.
School administrators spoke about the activities that take place during the day so working parents didn’t feel like they were missing anything, and they discussed ways parents could get involved with their children’s school. The working parents group lets parents know about school volunteer opportunities, as well. The group has grown to include not only parents with jobs but also those with other daytime responsibilities.
Keep in mind that working parents may want to take time off from work to help with big events that happen during school hours. Start asking for help far in advance so parents can change their work schedules, if needed.
Key message: Working parents will be more likely to get involved if your group sends the message that all involvement is needed and valued, even if a parent has limited time to give.
More ways to reach working parents: Some groups make it possible for working parents to attend PTO meetings by alternating meeting times between daytime and evening. Other groups have involved working parents by making lists of volunteer tasks parents can complete at home on their own time.
Senior citizens can be great school-day volunteers, but they probably make up a small percentage of your email list or Facebook followers. Recruiting grandparents as volunteers will be more successful if you ask for their help specifically and if you enlist school families in your recruitment effort.
Leaders of the St. Michael’s Episcopal Day School Parents Club in Carmichael, Calif., realized that the grandparents who attended student performances and classroom events were an untapped pool of potential volunteers. After the school’s director of advancement learned about a successful grandparents club at a conference, the parent group found a volunteer willing to lead a similar club at their school.
The St. Michael’s Grandparents Club has about 50 members and hundreds more on its email list, according to vice president Mary Hanson. Members have volunteered in classrooms and in the lunchroom, taught sewing, overseen the school garden, and more. Grandparents often serve beverages at school events like back-to-school night and open house. Two or three times a year, members meet for lunch or take day trips to area attractions to strengthen social ties.
Key message: Volunteering at school gives grandparents a way to stay involved in their grandchildren’s lives and to make a difference in their community. Let grandparents know that help is especially needed during the school day, when most parents can’t volunteer.
More ways to reach grandparents: Consider holding a Grandparents Day event at school when they can eat with students and visit their classrooms. Find out whether your school district has a foster grandparent program, through which retired senior citizens serve as classroom volunteers.
Events geared toward fathers can help them feel more welcome at school. If your group holds a Doughnuts With Dads breakfast or other father-focused event, be sure to capture the fathers’ emails and phone numbers to keep them informed when you need help in the future. If time allows, tell those gathered about what your PTO does and how you can use their help. By making a concerted effort to help dads feel welcome and needed at school, you may end up with a healthy list of volunteers.
Once a month at Sandburg Elementary in Wheaton, Ill., fathers and kids attend “bring your own breakfast” events before school. Parent Jeff Crowley worked with the PTA to launch the program from All Pro Dad, which encourages dads to get more involved in their kids’ schools. The breakfast events offer a way for fathers to connect with each other and their kids at the same time.
“Each meeting, we start off with the dads saying what they are proud of their children for the past month,” Crowley says. After a short video on a monthly topic provided by All Pro Dad, attendees discuss their thoughts as families and with the larger group. “We encourage the kids and dads to both share their thoughts, and it’s a great way to talk about topics that are on both of our minds,” he says.
Key message: Call on dads directly for help. Let them know that your group is about more than meetings. If they have an hour to give, fathers are typically more interested in helping with a project than sitting in a meeting.
More ways to reach dads: Invite fathers to school to events especially for them, whether it’s a weekend landscaping project or a special breakfast with the kids. Many parent groups have formed dads clubs, which organize their own events or pitch in to help with other school happenings.
Parents With Shared Custody
Communicating with divorced parents presents a different set of challenges. As it is, flyers and newsletters sent home with kids have an iffy chance of making it into the hands of both adults in a single household. When a parent doesn’t live in the same house, the chances are further reduced.
For parents with regular access to computers, electronic communication can help significantly with this problem. Keeping a consistent stream of communication to all parents, including an email newsletter, allows all volunteers to access information and keep up to date, even if they aren’t at a meeting or in the same house. Many parents without primary custody attend back-to-school nights or open houses, making those events good opportunities to have PTO volunteers collect email addresses.
In addition, many parent groups give families the option to list two addresses for students in electronic or printed school directories, allowing families to provide contact information for both households.
When asking for help, be specific about the time commitment, location, and purpose. Parents without primary custody may not be as familiar with the school or daily procedures.
Key message: Connecting with the PTO or PTA can help parents stay informed about what’s going on in their children’s lives. Parents can be active in the group without committing large amounts of time to volunteering.
More ways to reach divorced parents: If your school doesn’t share parent email addresses with your group, you could consider enlisting the help of teachers. Because many teachers use email to communicate with parents, you could ask if they would forward your PTO’s messages on to parents of their students.
Parent groups can form partnerships with community organizations to make it easier to round up a large number of volunteers for a single big event. The Wedgwood PTO in Sewell, N.J., partnered with a Cub Scout pack to provide volunteers for the PTO’s back-to-school night, an annual book fair, and a holiday shop. Scouts have greeted parents, handed out refreshments, and run cash registers.
The Springman Attea PTA in Glenview, Ill., found a great source of volunteers for the middle schools’ 8th grade graduations by working with a local high school community service club. The 11th and 12th grade students helped staff the event alongside parent volunteers, creating a win-win for both groups.
Key message: Community groups with strong service components are an often-untapped source of volunteer power. Reaching out to these groups also provides a way to forge connections that will pay off for years to come.
More ways to reach community groups: Ask your members whether they are part of any organizations that might want to help. Some schools have formed partnerships with college clubs or service groups as well as with neighborhood houses of worship.